Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Romney Trails in the Oprah Primary

I rise, Madame Chairman, to partially agree and partially disagree with my good friends from the states of Ohio and California about the New York Times article on Mitt Romney. I agree with Peter, Julie and Mark Leibovich of the Times that it’s going to be hard for Romney to connect with the voters if he continues to come across as a “permasmiling” robo-candidate. It’s not just a matter of affect; in conjunction with doubts about the, um, flexibility of Romney’s political convictions, his campaign style raises the larger question of whether Romney believes in anything as fervently as he believes in his own abilities and destiny.

There are two things about the Times article that qualify this judgment. First, the observation that Romney “is not prone to unburdening himself of his life’s travails on the stump” figures heavily in the article’s thesis. That fact leaves me, however, disposed to admire his reticence rather than condemn Romney for being a Ken-doll candidate. We should praise the occasional politician who leans against the Oprahfication of American life. Twelve years ago Bob Dole started out as the anti-Clinton, a politician who not only didn’t feel your pain but didn’t feel his own, in the late Michael Kelly’s phase. Before the 1996 campaign you could hardly get Dole to talk in public about the terrible wounds he had suffered in World War II. By the time the campaign ended, and the emotional fascism demanding that public figures turn themselves inside out had done its work, you could hardly get Dole to stop talking about those wounds. The fact that Romney refuses obvious openings to discuss his wife’s multiple sclerosis, for example, is an encouraging sign of a stubborn and anachronistic sense of privacy, as well as a dignified refusal to aspire to the Clintonian role of Empathizer-in-Chief.

Secondly, Romney has a more acute understanding than the Times of the impossible dilemma created by these demands for full disclosure. He tells Leibovich, “Running for president in the YouTube era, you realize you have to be very judicious in what you say. You have to be careful with your humor. You have to recognize that anytime you’re running for the presidency of the United States, you’re on.” The journalists and political critics demand to look behind the mask, to see who the candidate “really is.” Because of that very demand, however, what they see there is just another mask. The shrewd candidate will follow the coaching of his shrewd advisors, who prepare him to be down-to-earth, informal and relaxed in precisely those ways that score well with focus groups. Romney may be authentically inauthentic, and that’s a problem. I prefer it, though, to the inauthentic authenticity of a politician like Bill Clinton or John Edwards.

Discussions - 2 Comments

Well done and nicely said. There is something to be said, certainly, about maintaining one's dignity in public and not stooping to discuss things that may "connect" merely for the sake of the connection.

You say: The journalists and political critics demand to look behind the mask, to see who the candidate “really is.” Because of that very demand, however, what they see there is just another mask. And I think that is very good and, most of the time, probably true. But when Romney says, "Running for president in the YouTube era, you realize you have to be very judicious in what you say. You have to be careful with your humor. You have to recognize that anytime you’re running for the presidency of the United States, you’re on" I'm not sure your generous interpretation fits him. I grant you that it might. But bear with me . . . even if it's absolutely true that it fits him, understanding that requires an incredible stretch of the imagination. It's not a stretch most voters are going to be willing to attempt and, frankly, it's probably not one that it is fair to ask them to perform. When he talks about being "on" most regular people (and I include myself among them) hear something more like this: "When I condescend to talk for your benefit, I have to be careful about what I say. I have to be careful because I might say something that makes people not like me. And I wouldn't want that . . . it's very important that you like me. Please like me. I don't want to have to defend what I'm saying. The guys in the media are really tough." In other words, he seems to be confirming what we already suspect: he's slick.

When I say that I want someone to be genuine, I don't mean that I want to know the secret longings of his heart or the quiet strength of his personal pain. (John McCain is pretty good about this too, by the way. He doesn't talk much or in great detail often about his POW experience--which was harrowing.) I don't want to read a novel about Mitt Romney or watch the soap opera of his life unfold before my eyes. But I also don't want a guy who guards every word so tightly that it's painful to watch him speak. Say what's on your mind and have the gumption to defend it. That's all I want. I can't respect a man who is afraid to tick me off.

And, finally, the odds are that whoever wins this horse race is going to be running against Hillary. That is going to be the biggest Oprah moment ever. If he's not going to participate in it (as he shouldn't) then he's going to have to fight against and defend his choice. He is going to have to tick off a lot of women. I think he can do that and do it with good effect--but not with canned answers and by being "on."

The real problem with masks is that they slip. The person becomes evident with the persistence of media exposure - look at Hillary as a prime example - and whoever is behind the mask had better not just look good, but BE good. Somehow, I think of George Washington, who was very well contained because that was the way he was. Even Washington's negatives seem to me not to have been all that bad. If that is the nature of Romney, all well and good. If he as false as Washington's teeth, that will become apparent as no one can be "on" all the time.

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