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.