I suspect that, for a lot of Americans, watching Mitt Romney as he has campaigned himself into the Republican nomination for the presidency, it's been bemusing to study this man's seemingly endless number of gaffes - not to mention his high degree of truth telling problems - in his public utterances. I found myself wincing as I watched Mr. Romney laughingly explain away his teenage pranks, saying he could not remember committing assault and battery on a fellow student at the Cranbrook Schools, while others involved in the thing remembered it as though it occurred yesterday. On the event itself I would have given Romney a pass, but the explanation and the manner in which it was given defy reason.
If anything at all, Mitt Romney was the recipient of the best of what America has to offer in the way of upbringing, in education, in family circumstances, and in carving out a career from the benefits of them. Here is a man who never suffered for anything in life as the son of a self-made father who once aspired to the Presidency himself. Mitt Romney is a man who, despite the potential pitfall of becoming someone who could have been on cruise control for virtually his entire life, nevertheless excelled at one of the nation's finest schools of higher learning after having been sequestered in an exclusive Michigan prep school, where the turmoil of the 1960's simply could not have meant much more than some hazy talk of war and social revolution which were raging outside the Cranbrook gates.
Romney took his undergraduate degree in English from Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, which is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – the Mormons. Then, following that accomplishment up, he completed a double post-grad degree in Law and Business from Harvard, where he must have excelled at multi-tasking between Torts and Regression Analysis classes. From there he made his own mark in the world of business (jump started with a little help from his friends) with Boston's Bain Management, and later became a founder of Bain Capital, where he made millions buying and selling distressed businesses. His life, for someone beginning to familiarize himself with the candidate, seems to be forty years of “the right stuff” in preparation for a stint in the White House: the right family, the right schools, the right curriculum vitae.
Non-stop misfires on the stump
Yet, Romney has displayed over and over again, a tremendous inability to communicate with ordinary Americans, to connect with them in his speeches, and most markedly in his off the cuff remarks to reporters covering his campaign. He has made some incredibly dumb mistakes along the way: mistakes which call into serious question his ability to think clearly before opening his mouth. It is not the smartest thing to say publicly that “I like to fire people” in a time when hundreds of thousands of perfectly good people have been let go of their jobs. Not is it smart to say, “I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there....” when you are looking for the votes of the poor. When asked how closely he followed NASCAR, while campaigning in Ohio, he now famously remarked, "Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans. But I have some great friends that are NASCAR team owners."
He even (quite unconsciously) threw his wife under the bus when he mentioned her donation to Planned Parenthood 18 years ago in one instance, and in another noted her stable of Cadillacs. Noting his $375,000 “insignificant” income from speaker's fees last January, the country seemed to do a double take on this assertion that he worries about pink slips, too. Finally, there is that famous “Corporations are people, too, my friend!” comment to a (presumablky out of work) heckler in Iowa.
But is he qualified?
Over and over again, this candidate has come across as a totally clueless rich boy, fully isolated from the pain, the anguish, the sheer fright of being an American worker in the midst of the worst economic slump in 80 years. At a time when great numbers of voters are unsure about their future, Mitt Romney reminds them, almost daily, that he is not of them; that he is of a different caste, disconnected from the people whose votes he will need in November.
The greatest power of the American presidency is the power to communicate. When a president cannot be persuasive of both his constituency and the other two branches of government, he is simply ineffective. The electoral success of two polar opposites in the modern presidency – Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover – hinged largely on their ability to communicate effectively, even though Hoover had a mile-long résumé of accomplishments prior to his election in 1928 and was the incumbent in 1932, running against FDR.
It may be, however, that Romney is different than his words. It may be he's a considerably more complex person than he has demonstrated to date. Be that as it may, Romney has demonstrated something far more important, which is an inability to think on his feet. He is a salesman telling 300 million people what he thinks they want to hear and in doing so exposes his lack of real conviction by consistently conflicting one remark with another. He can tick off the features without knowing “what's inside the can,” but the voters Romney most needs know when someone is insincere. Even in a pair of jeans he looks ill at ease. His body language signals that he'd be happy to be anywhere but where he is.
In the end, he has not thought about his campaign in that grand way it takes to develop a raison de courir, a reason to run. It may be that his impetus stems from some more personal reason: that of achieving what his father could not. Certainly, the notion of noblesse oblige is missing from Mitt Romney's behavior toward the less fortunate of America. For all his education, for all his accomplishments, he has shown he is an adept player at the most thoroughly American game of all: the achievement of great wealth, but miserable at authenticity.
Good thinking requires something more than the ability to multi-task between two different ivy league college majors. It requires the ability to sit quietly, in solitude, and think about oneself and one's real mission in aspiring to greatness. Mitt Romney does not appear to have done that exercise. He has not figured out whether in his life there is, indeed, any “there” there.
Will Romney be elected?
I do not think Mitt Romney will make it all the way to the oval office. His flaws are numerous and too telling. He appears to be, at the end of the day, too unprincipled and too willing to approach his campaign as a business problem rather than offering a unifying vision for the country to voters. Regardless, Romney will get his share of votes simply because there is a distinct anti-Obama bias among socially conservative voters, particularly in the South and much of the Midwest and because there is so much corporate money lined up against him. Where normally a conservative voter would stay away from the voting booth when their candidate rings inauthentic, they are now willing to vote not so much for Romney as against Obama. But I do not believe it will be enough.
What's really fascinating about this election, as in the last, is that the candidates are two men whose lives could not be more different in terms of the paths they walked to distinction, and the fact that for the first time in our history, the cost of electing a President will approach, and perhaps exceed, 2 billion dollars.
For that kind of money, a President should be able to at least appear to have his mouth and his brain synchronized. For a job which requires above all an ability to speak with clarity and credulity, Mr. Romney is abysmally underqualified.