The Mitt Who Wasn’t There
An ocean of digital ink has already been spilled in search of discovering the “real” Mitt Romney; a figure we’re supposed to imagine the candidate (or “unreal”) Mitt Romney has, for more than a decade, skillfully hidden from public view. There’s even an entire book devoted to pushing Mitt into the light, the fittingly titled The Real Romney. Thing is, the man’s been a high-profile public figure for at least 10 years now. But aside from a handful of anecdotes that suggest a consistent lack of empathetic powers, there’s precious little we can say we “know” about Mitt Romney that we couldn’t have learned from his own books and campaign agitprop. Which is to say: not much.
Out of countless nominees, my favorite Romney profile is by Wells Tower of GQ magazine. Tower spent around five months embedded with the Romney campaign. His assignment was to use his journalist wiles and GQ‘s many resources to discover Romney’s “soul,” and then to write about it in a way the magazine’s readers would find comprehensible, if perhaps not endearing. The piece is my favorite because in this, its central task, it is an abject failure. Eight-thousand words and Romney’s more inscrutable than ever. Join the club, Mr. Tower.
What’s also emblematic about Wells’ piece is the way Romney’s few moments of possibly unfiltered humanity all come at the expense of his clearly artificial likability. I’ve written about this before — and I’ll be the first to cop to its likely being a consequence in part of my being a liberal — but Romney sounds his most self-assured, and his least approachable, when talking about his wealth. A vignette in the GQ article depicting a high-end fundraiser in Oklahoma City, which is about as hospitable an environment Romney’s likely to find outside of Utah, is representative:
He says, of Americans, “Rather than being guided by the circumstances of our birth or government telling us what to do, we’re guided by our dreams…. As I watch this president, the reason his policies have failed is that he doesn’t understand the power of dreams.”
Maybe this is it. Maybe this is as essentially human as Mitt gets. I mean, in five months he’s given me no reason to suppose he doesn’t whisper these sorts of things to Ann in the confidence of their California- king-size. If that’s the case, I am concerned. It’s distressing not only that the son of a bajillionaire governor whose aspirations to the presidency he inherited with his father’s jawline would accuse the mixed-race kid of a decidedly unrich single mom of failing to “understand the power of dreams.” It is that Romney is able, in one breath, to make such reverent sounds about the American Dream, about American lives “not being guided by the circumstances of our birth” and then also to characterize any public talk of income inequality as a form of lesser treason.
All right, so maybe we don’t get to see the “real” Mitt because the “real” Mitt is the kind of guy that anyone with a net worth under six figures is liable to kick in the shins. When you’re trying to win the biggest popularity contest in the country, I suppose that’s a better excuse for opacity than most. Besides, we’re not supposed to vote for the personalities but rather the policies; or at least that’s what we tell ourselves whenever the creeping awareness of our collective impotence gets us all antsy.
Sadly, there’s a problem here, too. As Ezra Klein went into at length this morning, the one thing harder to smoke out than the “real” Romney is the “real” Romney’s policy plans. Tell me if this sounds familiar — platitudinous, evasive, willfully unclear. According to Klein, that’s Romney’s position platform in a nutshell:
Romney’s offerings are more like simulacra of policy proposals. They look, from far away, like policy proposals. They exist on his Web site, under the heading of “Issues,” with subheads like “Tax” and “Health care.” But read closely, they are not policy proposals. They do not include the details necessary to judge Romney’s policy ideas. In many cases, they don’t contain any details at all.
Take taxes. Romney has promised a “permanent, across-the-board 20 percent cut in marginal rates,” alongside a grab bag of other goodies, like the end of “the death tax.” Glenn Hubbard, his top economic adviser, has promised that the plan will “broaden the tax base to ensure that tax reform is revenue-neutral.”
It is in the distance between “cut in marginal rates” and “revenue-neutral” that all the policy happens. That is where Romney must choose which deductions to cap or close. It’s where we learn what his plan means for the mortgage-interest deduction, and the tax-free status of employer health plans and the Child Tax Credit. It is where we learn, in other words, what his plan means for people like you and me. And it is empty. Romney does not name even one deduction that he would cap or close. He even admitted, in an interview with CNBC, that his plan “can’t be scored because those details have to be worked out.”
For months, some high-profile Republicans have urged Romney to flesh out his platform and tell the American people why they should vote for Romney rather than against Obama. But as I wrote at the time and am about to write again today, there’s a perfectly good reason Romney hasn’t followed their advice: They’re wrong. The heart of Romney’s policy platform is, recall, a big TBD, loosely constructed around the outline presented by Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” (itself scandalously half-baked). And what voters have seen of Ryan’s plan so far has struck them as horrible, not good, and very bad indeed. So Mitt’s quite right to avoid specifics at all costs.
Being right on the tactics isn’t the same as having the right strategy, however; and I think Romney will come to regret his decision to run as a real nowhere man. It’s worth keeping in mind that, despite our daily exposure to his powers of negative charisma, Romney is — at least on paper — just the kind of candidate Americans say they want. He’s good-looking; he’s a business success; he’s a devoted family man, a still-wed high school sweetheart; and he’s not only got executive experience, but a history of moderation and reasonableness. But, somehow, on the way from paper to person, the “real” Romney either steps out or steps in (depending on your political affiliation) and reminds how little being good “on-paper” is truly worth.
Also, be sure to check out the ongoing League Symposium on Democracy.