He is handsome, articulate, has impeccable integrity and a charming, down-to-earth wife. He’s ideologically close to the American center and can boast of success in diverse endeavors. It’s in person where his problems begin. He’s decent and likeable enough, both critics and some supporters agree. They also agree he doesn’t exude much warmth or empathy or connection to real people at a time when voters are anxious and frustrated.
“He’s like mayonnaise,” says Charles Campion, a longtime Democratic consultant in Boston who has watched Romney for almost two decades.
Democrats such as Campion see winning qualities in the 64-year-old former Massachusetts governor. “He looks presidential,” Campion says. That’s offset by both the shortcomings in personal engagement and political comfort.
“It’s shocking,” Campion says, “that he was caught flat-footed by the controversy over his background in private equity.”
It took the Republican front-runner days to respond after his rivals for the party’s presidential nomination described him as a “vulture capitalist,” who “looted” companies and threw people out of work. On the campaign trail, Romney rarely talks about his experiences as governor and only fleetingly about his success in running the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The focus is on his time at Bain Capital LLC, where he claims to have been a proven job creator.
The candidate and his campaign have shown real strengths. He is the first non-incumbent Republican to win both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary; if he emerges victorious in the South Carolina primary next weekend, it’s almost impossible to construct a scenario for anyone else to get the nomination.
The Romney campaign gets high marks for discipline, fundraising, policy preparation, opposition research -- they effectively savaged rivals Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich -- and mostly top grades for their political operation.
They have done a superb job of minimizing what were supposed to be two huge liabilities. One was Romney’s flip-flops on social issues such as abortion and guns, as well as fiscal questions and especially immigration. He has made unusually dramatic changes, always moving more to the party’s conservative base. Yet, in the main, he has fended off these criticisms.
The other broadside concerned his enactment of a health-care mandate as governor of Massachusetts that was the model for President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. After a volley of early criticisms of “Romneycare,” these assaults have tapered off, and it’s hard to see how Obama could score on this terrain in the general election.
The reason the private-equity issue is more serious is that it goes to the core of Romney’s case for his candidacy: that he understands the economy and is a job creator. It’s a threat when the chief credentials of a candidate are even minimally eroded; Romney can ask his fellow Bay-stater, Democratic Senator John Kerry, who was smeared on his Vietnam War record while running for president in 2004. As with Kerry then, some of the Romney criticism is unfair.
Still, many of Romney’s wounds are self-inflicted. The raison d’être of private equity is to create wealth, not jobs as he suggests. He might have been smarter to stress the teachers’ and firemen’s retirement funds that benefited from Bain investments. The criticisms amplify the larger vulnerability, Romney’s lack of common touch or understanding of the concerns of most Americans.
Even Republicans cringe when he tries to present himself as an average Joe who worried about getting that “pink slip” or making it in life. He is the son of the late George Romney, a multimillionaire former automobile chief executive officer and governor of Michigan. Economic struggles aren’t part of Willard Mitt Romney’s life story.
There is an interesting contrast with his father. The son has more political discipline; it’s hard to imagine him proclaiming he was “brainwashed” by a Democratic administration on the Vietnam War as his father once did in his unsuccessful race for the presidential nomination. It’s equally difficult to envision the son empathizing with workers at a factory gate the way his father could comfortably do.
As much as ideology or any issue it’s this personal empathy gap that fuels the resistance to the Romney candidacy.
The campaign insists the Bain flap may be a blessing, galvanizing Republican support and vetting the issue for the fall campaign. That may be wishful thinking. It’s one thing for establishment Republicans or talk-show host Rush Limbaugh to rally behind Romney on Bain, it’s another for a blue-collar worker in Ohio or a political independent in Colorado to react the same way.
This is apparent in the exit polls of New Hampshire voters. Romney, while capturing almost 40 percent of the vote, ran behind Ron Paul among independents and got only about one-third of voters making less than $100,000.
The presidential election will have lots of ups and downs between now and Nov. 6. It’s disingenuous for team Obama to gloat about the disjointed Romney reaction to the Bain flap when the departure of Chief of Staff Bill Daley exposed the White House’s own dysfunction.
Nevertheless, the almost certain Republican nominee bared major vulnerabilities. It’s a mistake for any politician to try to remake themselves. As a famous American football coach once said when asked if he was going to change his team’s style to defeat a different opponent: “You’ve got to dance with the one that brung ya.”
Romney, when facing Obama, will have to learn to dance a little better.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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