The Missing Mitt

The Name, The Man, The Message

There are few enduring truths in politics. Money usually wins would be one truism. Optimism beats gloom would be another.

The truism that once and future GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney keeps finding wrapped around his campaign axle is the old line about voters first needing to know the candidate’s name, then understand the man, and finally warm to the message. Romney keeps tripping over the man.

After running for president in 2008 and literally never stopping for breath in the three years since, Romney still seems a mystery. As hard as he works at it, Romney leaves the steady impression that he’s keeping his real self as buttoned down as the oxford cloth shirts he now wears at every campaign event.

Two new books about Romney try to pull back the curtain. Michael Tomasky reviews both in the current New York Review of Books. Here is one telling passage from his piece.

“Even R.B. Scott, a longtime magazine and newspaper journalist who is a fellow Mormon and former occasional Romney adviser who tried to enlist Romney’s cooperation in his book, Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, cannot escape (and to his credit does not shy away from) pursuing certain dark corners of Romney’s character and identifying his weaker points:

“His inability to empathize with common folk had long been his hoary hoodoo. His father had warned him about it. As a Mormon stake [roughly, a diocese] president, he was kind if often impatient and patronizing with members who didn’t measure up or were beneath him in rank and in intellectual and spiritual prowess. And on and on it went.”

And, remember, that analysis is coming from a friend.

In another passage, Scott quotes Romney’s father, George, the one-time governor of Michigan and a Nixon Administration cabinet secretary as telling his son: “Forget your handlers. Connect with the people. Speak from your heart.”

I watched Romney’s speech last night when it was becoming clear that he had lost two contests – Minnesota and Missouri – and might well lose a third in Colorado to Rick Santorum. Romney delivered a well-prepared, even clever, take down of Barack Obama that compared the president’s oratory following the Democratic convention in 2008 with the subsequent record.

In a way, Romney’s speech was devastating in its detail, but still it seemed flat. What was missing was the man Romney. What is he going to do? What in his approach and preparation helps establish that he can conquer the country’s epic problems? Just who is this guy and can we trust him? He can certainly deliver the take down line, just ask Newt Gingrich, but he can’t seem to muster the lift up line.

Of course, Romney’s entire run is predicated on him as the outsider, the business executive whose lack of Washington experience is just what the country needs. He is also counting on the fact, as base Republican voters know and appreciate, that he is not Barack Obama. Still, we know what he isn’t. but what is he?

Americans have little history of rewarding a resume such as Romney’s, particularly when the voters struggle to connect with the candidate as a person. What they have rewarded, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, and yes, Obama, too, is an authentic personality. Granted, Obama is cool and distant, but still not nearly the mystery that Romney presents.

Ronald Reagan was most assuredly the outsider that Romney wants to be, but the force of his personality, his warmth and humor – not to mention his ideas – provided the smooth elixir of connection with the votes. Romney just doesn’t have it, or at least hasn’t shown it yet. In fact, rather than projecting Reagan’s sunny optimism and good natured manner, Romney tried to wrest away the Gipper’s mantle by criticizing Gingrich for only once being mentioned in Reagan’s diary. It was a debating point in search of a human response.

The other current book on Romney – The Real Romney - by two Boston Globe reporters describes him as “A wall. A shell. A mask.”

Writing in New York magazine, the admittedly very liberal Frank Rich, no fan of Romney, quotes a fellow he describes as “a captain of American finance,” and a former Bain & Company colleague, as saying of Romney: “Mitt was a nice guy, a smart businessman, and an excellent team player…Still, whenever the rest of us would go out at the end of the day, we’d always find ourselves having the same conversation: None of us had any idea who this guy was.”

Romney has, of course, compounded his “who is he” problems with his many sided approach to many issues and his confounding comments about liking to fire people and not worrying about the poor. It may well be that the Romney cake on these issues – Times columnist Frank Bruni calls it Romney’s “pink slip of the tongue” problem – has been baked and that is as much as we’ll see for the rest of the year, but I hope not.

If this guy is smart, as everyone says he is, and has a warm and decent side, as many suggest, the country would benefit from seeing it. Both the Franks – Rich and Bruni – suggest that the real Romney is buried out of sight in his deeply held Latter Day Saints faith, which, ironically, is one place the campaign and the candidate clearly don’t want to go.

Once we know about Bain and Romneycare, Rich asks what is left to know? He answers his own question:

 “Mainly, [Romney's] unspecified service to his church and his perfect marriage. That reduces him to the stature of the Republican presidential candidate he most resembles, Thomas Dewey—in both his smug and wooden campaign style and in the overrating of his prospects by the political culture. Even the famously dismissive description of Dewey popularized by the Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth—as “the little man on the wedding cake”—seems to fit Mitt.”

In 1948, Tom Dewey, a moderate northeastern Republican governor at war with the right wing of his own party, seemed the perfect candidate against an enormously unpopular Harry Truman. Dewey was a smart, polished and disciplined. He was the inevitable nominee with a record of accomplishment. Ultimately, against the blunt and human Truman, he become a vacuous and terrible candidate; reduced to the little man on the wedding cake.

In that famous election in 1948 Dewey took inevitable and buttoned down and turned it into mechanical, boring and loser.

Mitt Romney. We know the name. It’s the man we are struggling to figure out.

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