Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Romney: An Unprincipled Man of Wealth?

Elizabeth Drew is one of the more insightful political reporters in Washington, and she's been at it a long time.  In a short piece for the New York Review of Books blog, she writes exactly what I've been thinking about the prospects of Mitt Romney as President. 
The outcome of a presumably close election thus rides on how swing voters ultimately decide what they think about Mitt Romney; their views about Barack Obama are pretty well fixed, even though he remains somewhat opaque to many. The two most interesting questions about Romney are whether he can become a more steady candidate, and what is it that causes him to stumble and say oafish things. The frequency of Romney‘s displays of awkwardness is something rarely seen in a party’s nominee. The nature of Romney’s stumbles—his wife Ann has “a couple of Cadillacs”—is also unusual. The important thing about these slips is that they go beyond being the stuff of jokes and mockery, to raise questions about what kind of president Romney would be.

He just cannot help reminding audiences that he’s very wealthy, and often comes across as simply uncomfortable in dealing with those outside his own narrow world. It’s not just that both he and Ann were raised in plush circumstances—she perhaps even more so, with nannies and horses in the posh Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills—but that neither of them seems to understand how different their lives have been from that of all but a very few. This may explain why even going for the presidency he didn’t bother to pull out funds he’d stashed away in the Cayman Islands or Switzerland or hold off in expanding their home in La Jolla in a $12 million renovation, including an elevator for the four-car garage. The symbolism of such things goes well beyond the “tin ear,” and suggests a paralyzing inability to understand the circumstances of most others: What else can explain Romney’s look of disgust as he disdained the cookies the hostess had placed before him when he met with a middle class group around a picnic table in Bethel, Pennsylvania? ( “I don’t know about those cookies”—which in his narrow-vision he perhaps thought had come from a 7-11.) These stumbles go way beyond George H. W. Bush’s lack of familiarity with grocery store bar codes. How are the voters, and if he were to become president the citizens, going to react to this kind of talk?

In 2004, relating the young married couple’s hardship living a basement apartment while they completed their studies at Brigham Young University, Ann Romney said that if things got too difficult her husband sold some stocks his father had given him. The couple’s apparent sole interest in sports is horseback riding and their one sports passion is dressage horses (which cost an estimated $250,000-$300,000 a year to maintain). Being wealthy doesn’t automatically mean that a politician cannot connect with the middle class or the poor: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F Kennedy, for example, were at ease about their good fortune, and both could see well beyond their manicured estates.

Romney thinks he is very funny—he and his wife say so—and he laughs a lot at his own jokes, but his jokes tend to be duds, and he lacks wit. He doesn’t get it that telling a group of waitresses that he’s unemployed wasn’t terribly funny. It got less so as it was revealed that he is being paid about $20 million by Bain Capital for doing nothing for the company. Romney is square—and a lot of the people prefer a square, especially if they feel there is something to fear or simply dislike about a more hip and flashy candidate. They might feel safer with a square. Especially one who looks like a Norman Rockwell President.

Romney’s problem is that even if he had compassionate instincts he’s trapped by the fact that he has been running for the nomination in a party that had moved so far to the right that any suggestion that he cares for the plight of others could have endangered his prospects. Thus, in February he told a large and powerful group of conservative Republicans that his record as Governor of Massachusetts was “severely” conservative—ad-libbing the adverb. Romney’s ease in revising the truth goes beyond even the norms of expediency and suggests an unusual absence of core guiding political principles. It also may reflect a discomfiting weakness. A politician in a position of great power without principles and weak is, well, alarming.

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