Mitt Romney’s a Regular Old Guy: Empathy, Part IV
Of all the strange and absurd moments from the Republican primary debates, perhaps the most underrated came during the January 7th debate in New Hampshire, when ABC moderator George Stephanopoulos ended the night with a classic George Stephanopoulos (read: non-pertinent) question: if the candidates were not running for president, what would they be doing instead on that Saturday night?
Rick Perry said he’d be at the shooting range (obviously). Newt Gingrich said he’d be watching “the college championship basketball game,” followed by Newt Gingrich being corrected that he actually meant the championship football game. Rick Santorum one-upped Newt by saying he’d be watching the championship game with his family (because, you know, family values), followed by Mitt Romney, who said, “I’m afraid it’s football. I love it.”
Don’t we all. These answers make sense when you consider that the First Rule of Politics is that every single normal American male loves sports and guns and that The Second Rule of Politics is that all presidential candidates must pretend at all times to be normal American males. Which, of course, they are not. As they so adroitly proved with their answers, since the college football championship game was not until Monday, January 9th (to say nothing of the basketball championship, which fell on April 2nd).
It is definitely not a crime to be unaware of the date of a football game, particularly for a presidential candidate. Running for president is incredibly time-consuming, as it should be. (Though as a side note, how could they mention the BCS championship game without pushing for a playoff!? What kind of leadership is that?!) But why, oh why, are candidates bound to pretend like they are “regular folks”?
I bring this up because we are talking about empathy, and often we—myself included—conflate the notion of empathy in a candidate with the idea of “connecting with the voters,” or as shorthand for “someone voters would like to have a beer with.” These are not at all the same thing, as George W. Bush so wonderfully demonstrated. Bush, of course, was a regular ol’ guy—a real American, as Sarah Palin would say—someone with whom we’d all want to drown our sorrows, as opposed to the wooden Al Gore, or John Kerry, who surely lost only because of his snooty European values and because he did not at all outperform expectations—no, that would be impossible.
I suspect that presidential candidates—particularly Republican presidential candidates, and, to be even more precise, their campaigns—contribute to and encourage this sort of conflation, because they find it easier to try to connect with voters than to explain how they will help voters. In other words, they try to use cultural markers (Wearing cowboy boots! Driving a pickup truck! Eating hot dogs at the state fair!) to attach themselves to less-wealthy voters in lieu of actually maintaining and articulating policies that will help these voters. Democrats are hardly exempt from this, of course, and next week I’ll examine in closer detail some of the reasons why this affects politicians and campaigns from both parties. (The short, oversimplified version: The Republican Party doesn’t really care about empathy, and Democrats are overly desperate to appear “authentic.”) But the dilemma for presidential candidates is this: how do rich and powerful people honestly feel—or at least pretend to feel—the pain of those who aren’t rich and powerful? One option is to pander (George W. Bush as the brush-clearing cowboy). Another option is to actually promote policies that indicate this empathy.
In Mitt we have this problem at its apex. He is terrible at pandering. He signals in all sorts of ways his extreme wealth and privilege as very few presidential candidates ever have. And on a variety of subjects, Mitt has refused to illuminate his positions. Those positions that he has adopted benefit most those who, like him, are very rich.
This is starting to worry the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which today said,
the biography that voters care about is their own, and they want to know how a candidate is going to improve their future. That means offering a larger economic narrative and vision than Mr. Romney has so far provided.
I doubt that Romney is going to provide this until the moment he finds it necessary to do so, because I don’t think many voters will like what they hear. And it may be smart, for the challenger, in a terrible economy, to stay as vague as possible on policy plans. But in the meantime, we’d do well to remember that how a candidate connects with voters, while obviously important, is not the same thing as a candidate showing how he will care for and help voters.
Speaking of authenticity, in that same January debate, after the string of “I’d be watching pigskin” answers, Ron Paul said he would be reading an economics textbook. Doesn’t this seem like exactly what Ron Paul would be doing?! Some Milton Friedman after dinner, and then something light, like Atlas Shrugged or the Fountainhead, for a few minutes before bed.
Next week: Empathy, the conclusion