Alas, Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan
It pains me to disagree so emphatically with an article published today on American Thinker, but Jim Guirard’s advocacy of Mitt Romney as a 2016 presidential candidate leaves me no choice. There is no reason at all to believe that a second consecutive shot at the presidency by Mitt would be any more successful than the last time such a thing was tried, when Adlai Stevenson helmed the Democrat ticket in 1956, spectacularly losing to President Eisenhower by 15.4% of the popular vote and 384 electoral votes, a higher margin than his first defeat.
Although Guirard postulates, rather optimistically, that Mitt is moving rightward, he says not a word about Mitt’s real problems. So let me describe them. But before I do, I must stipulate that I think Mitt Romney is a highly admirable man who would, if he could be elected, make a fine president. He has demonstrated high ability as an executive, leading, guiding, changing, motivating, and even inspiring members of organizations he has led. Moreover, he has demonstrated a far better grasp of the dynamics of the world political system than Obama (which could be interpreted as a sarcastic comparison, but is not intended as such). And his understanding of how a market economy functions is unquestionable.
But in order to bring these blessings to the Oval Office, he first has to win a majority of the Electoral College. And there is little reason to believe he could do that any better in 2016 than he did in 2012.
First of all, Mitt Romney remains a plutocrat. He has made, through entirely legitimate means, a fortune sizable enough to be able to afford an elevator for his car in his California getaway house. This kind of wealth makes a lot of people uneasy. The wealthy may be able to buy influence in Congress, good lawyers, and even good PR consultants, but they are not able to remove the discomfort a lot of people feel about the very rich. I don’t think it is a good thing, but it is a real thing. If I could wish it away, I would. But I can’t.
The question, “Does candidate X care about people like you?” remains a key issue in presidential politics. A malign effect of the spread of electronic mass media is that many people expect to relate to their president as they would to a friend. They want to like the president, and they expect the president to be the kind of person who would like them. This is part of the celebrity culture of fantasized relationships with figures known only through the media. So powerful is this fantasy dimension that a president who projects likability and empathy can even overcome the disadvantages of possessing wealth. But Mitt does not possess this personality dimension, and it is something that cannot be acquired through intelligence, will and perseverance.
I think this is stupid, quite frankly, but again, my wishes will not make it go away.
Although he has a large vocabulary, is mentally quick, and suffers no speech impediments, Mitt Romney is not a gifted communicator. He has a penchant for awkward word choices, such as when he described himself as “severely conservative.” Although he meant to reassure the GOP conservative base, the locution accomplished exactly the opposite. “Severe” is not a word that carries positive connotations. Instead, it brings up images of heartlessness, unreasonableness, and unpleasantness. In fact, it suggests that he was intending to convey a false image of himself, that he is not in fact a conservative, but one who judges real conservatives in the same sort of negative light as do Democrats and establishment Republicans.
This brings up another dimension of Mitt Romney’s communications problems: his difficulty in conveying sincerity beyond a face-to-face-context. Here, the contrast with Ronald Reagan could not be starker. As an actor more skilled than he was every given credit for, and more importantly, as somebody who went into politics not out of ambition but because he passionately believed in certain principles and in America, President Reagan was able to project his sincerity through the media, as well as in person.
Related to sincerity but analytically separate is the notion of comfort with oneself. The expression “comfortable in his own skin” sums a quality people intuitively pick up on individuals they see frequently, whether it be in real life, or in the media. Unfortunately for Mitt, when the TV lights come on in a formal setting, he does not radiate this quality. In fact, he comes across just the opposite, as someone who desperately wants to be liked, wants to say the right thing and adopt all the right gestures, but who can’t quite close the sale.
If Jim Guirard or anyone else wants to come back at me and state that these are all superficial qualities, that they have little to do with being a good president in the mold of a Washington or a Lincoln, I would agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I would amplify the argument by stating that it is a tragedy that such superficial matters determine who becomes president.
But that is the system we live in. And pretending that we don’t will lead to the election of a Democrat, perhaps a Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren. And that, too, would be a tragedy, and an avoidable one.