Google “Mitt Romney” today and the first thing that appears is “Mitt Romney bullying,” which says a lot about a lot of things. It may just be that a lot of folks think a story about the GOP presidential candidate’s prep school years is an interesting story, or perhaps a silly story about the silly pranks of 17-year olds, or maybe a telling story about the candidate’s privileged upbringing, or just a mild distraction from debate about the economy and war and peace, or maybe it signifies something else entirely.
The story that broke yesterday in the Washington Post may yet prove to be a passing blip on the presidential political radar screen, but it may also be the first of a prolonged series of tests of Romney and his campaign concerning just how well they handle a little adversity. What interests me today is how the Romney camp has responded, as well as the candidate’s first instincts when presented with an inconvenient story.
Romney’s first response, in a radio interview, was to issue a blanket apology for youthful indiscretions and a specific response that he couldn’t remember the incident – an alleged Romney-led pack of high school guys who set up a frightened, long-haired, supposedly gay kid and then cut his hair – that was the basis of the Post story.
I don’t know about you, but I remember too much of my school years, particularly the embarrassing stuff. I remember back to the sixth grade when the tough kid in class pushed me down and sat on my chest as I was trying to walk home from school. I had my glasses in a case in my hip pocket and they were broken when I hit the deck. You tend to remember stuff like that, even 40 or more years later. So, the “I don’t recall” answer Romney initially offered and then repeated just doesn’t have the ring of reality about it.
So what, you might well say. Who cares about prep school antics? If we were all held to account for dumb things we did in high school we would all have some explaining to do, particularly to our parents. And in the end the bullying story may be just such an event, but it will not be the last bit of personal adversity Romney faces as he endures six months of vetting before the November voting. This is why Romney’s tin ear response, time and again, to adversity is a problem for his campaign.
Each one of these episodes – bullying, corporations are people, I like firing people, the wife’s two Cadillacs – paint an unflattering picture of a guy who is being defined before our eyes and he, so far at least, lacks the basic political skills to slip away from the characterizations.
It is striking in a way that Mitt Romney has been running for president for six years straight, served as a governor of a major state, and still offers such an incomplete picture of himself. Romney told an interviewer recently that one hard lesson he has learned from his years in politics is that you must define yourself before others do the job for you. If he learned that lesson, he seems to have forgotten it again.
The bullying story is interesting less for what it says about Romney’s youth, than for what it says about how he handles his present circumstances. Had Romney said, as Time’s Joe Klein wrote today, “I did a really stupid and terrible thing” 50 years ago and I’m sorry and wish I could take it back, he’d be back to talking about the economy today. Instead, lacking the instincts of a genuinely accomplished pro, he flubbed his lines and has invited a vast amount of follow up analysis and scrutiny.
Good campaigns – winning campaigns – handle adversity. Barack Obama did in 2008 with his outrageously outspoken preacher. John Kerry didn’t with his swiftboat critics in 2004. George W. Bush did with his Vietnam record and Al Gore didn’t with his fundraising at a Buddhist temple.
Romney got through a long primary campaign against a remarkably weak field by, as Newt Gingrich said, “carpet bombing” his opponents with expensive television advertising and by appearing to be the one guy who might have a chance to win the White House. It’s a new day. Obama may not be the strongest candidate, but he’s no Rick Santorum either. Romney’s adversity is just beginning. If he can’t handle quickly and deftly a story about his 17-year old life what will he do about something really important?