Does Romney Empathize?
I have been thinking for several months about something written by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni way back in early February. Bruni expressed his surprise that Romney’s Mormon faith had not been made into an issue this election (he was referring to the Republican primary, but the same has held true thus far for the general election). It is worth pausing here to appreciate how far we’ve come from the days since many Americans worried that John F. Kennedy would be taking orders from the Pope.
Then again, the Romney campaign’s own relunctance to broach the topic suggests that maybe it doesn’t believe we have come quite so far as we think. Bruni points out that Romney almost never talks about his faith. Eventually, Bruni heads in the direction of psychobabble: the reason Romney cannot connect is because he is withholding a crucial part of himself (as if all Presidents do not repress certain parts of their selves to create a public image). But first, he writes something that has stuck with me:
“Romney’s even longer period as a Mormon lay leader in Boston involved counseling and consoling people dealing with marriage problems, addiction, unemployment: some of life’s messiest, scariest stuff. He must have gained a fluency in human frailty. But when The Times’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg was researching an article about that time, Romney predictably declined her interview request.”
I follow politics closely. When it comes to Romney, I knew about most everything: Bain, France, the Olympics, Massachusetts, the dog on the car roof. But not this. I had never heard anything about this aspect of Romney’s life. Not only is it interesting just for its own sake, and not only is it an interesting past experience for a president, but it is a particularly interesting experience for this particular presidential candidate.
As a political campaign tool, it would seem to be the perfect pushback against the litany of charges rung up against him—that he doesn’t care about the poor; that he’s out of touch with regular folks; that, as Mike Huckabee once said, he looks like the guy who fired you. It would, potentially, be the antidote to all of that.
Remember, for instance, when Newt Gingrich’s Super PAC released its anti-Bain Capital film, highlighted by first-person tales from workers who had been fired and seen their companies gutted while Bain profited, and replete with lines like “For tens of thousands of Americans, the suffering began when Mitt Romney came to town.”
Then imagine—not as a counter to the specific charges of capitalist greed but to the general idea of the unfeeling Mitt-Bot—a video from Romney’s corner, with stories from people whom Romney helped through “life’s scariest, messiest stuff.”
I understand why Romney did not bring up his counseling and consoling during the primary. For one thing, he wanted to fight the Bain charges head-on, not pivot away from them, because he wants to use his time at Bain as part of his message that he knows how to fix the economy. If capitalism ever becomes the bad guy then Romney is in massive trouble.
Secondly, toying with empathy is a dangerous thing in a Republican primary. Empathy, as you might have noticed, is in short supply—and in short demand—on that side of the aisle. There may have been a time, once, when that was not true. But that position, like so many others Republicans used to claim, is now long gone. (You just can’t say this out loud. Rick Perry, no one’s idea of a bleeding heart liberal, was openly scorned by Republicans after suggesting that opponents of his plan to let the children of illegal immigrants pay in-state-tuition didn’t have a heart.)
But now that the Republican primary is over, now that Obama is launching what New York Magazine’s Jon Chait calls a two-stage attack—first, attack Romney’s time at Bain, then use this to tie him to the Republican plan to gauge the poor—what does Romney do?
Keep talking about the economy, all day, every day? This is what he wants to do, and it may be smart. But in the end, I keep coming back to this: He must have gained a fluency in human frailty. Mitt Romney and human frailty. I would like to see this.