Monday, December 12, 2011

Good to His Friends, Good to His Family, a Penny Pincher....

I won't say that we look for presidential candidates who are bad to their families as, despite a certain tolerance of serial monogamy and the prioritization of career over family, that's not the case. There would likely be something nice in having a truly committed family man become President. But it's not a qualification. Mitt Romney may well be, as a friend writes, one of the finest parents in the world, but he's not running for daddy in chief.
We recently recommended that Mitt and Ann invite a film crew into their family Christmas party later this month and give people a more intimate look at their great relationships with their outstanding sons and their families and give the public a little more of a private look at the more casual Mitt — funny, relaxed and a great singer, along with being a genuinely compassionate person who really cares about others. We're now second guessing that suggestion because it might make him look even better, even more perfect, even more exceptional.
One hardly knows what to say. Romney's problem is not that he looks too perfect or too exceptional. It's that he comes across as opportunistic and disingenuous.
Everyone says they want change, want something new, want competency and want an outsider/manager rather than an insider/politico. But so many seem to think Romney is just a little bit too new, too different and maybe too good.
So Romney offers us change we can believe in? Been there, done that. He'll be an "MBA President"? Been there, tone that. He'll be an outsider, having made a five year career of running for President? First, these days everybody is claiming to be an outsider. Second, whatever the appeal of having an "outsider" be President, where's the evidence that an outsider will be effective, let alone more effective than an "insider"? If by "outsider" they mean "Not beholden to special interests," that's great - he can emphasize that. But it's difficult to see Romney as more of an outsider than any other former governor, with the outsider claim diminished by his prior campaigns for the Senate and Republican nomination.
The problem, you see, is that there are three very different skill sets required for: 1. Getting nominated; 2. Getting elected; and 3. Governing as president. The skill set required for No. 1 seems to be rigid, uncompromising, far-right positions and a total distrust (or even hatred) of all moderates and liberals. The skill set required for No. 2 is the ability to reach out to the center of the political spectrum and to take positions that everyone can understand and appreciate even if they don't agree. The skill set required for No. 3 is to be able to attract the best and the brightest, to listen well, to analyze well, and to make and clearly explain strong, reasoned decisions that turn our country around and move it forward.

Mitt is best at skill set No. 3, second best at No. 2 and probably worst at skill set No. 1. If he gets over that first hurdle, he will be a remarkable general election candidate and, we believe, an extraordinarily successful president.
In relation to the first hurdle, Romney has not displayed "sterling character". He has demonstrated a willingness to walk away from any prior position, no matter how strongly voiced in the past, in order to better position himself for the nomination. It is not "ridiculous" to reject the claim that Romney has simply "evolved and progressed in [his] positions and their views". Why not? Because since he started his campaigns for the Presidency, with no exception I can presently think of, every single time Romney has moved away from a prior position it has been to take the majority position that you would expect to find from a poll of likely primary voters. If his were a natural or thoughtful evolution, you would expect some variation.

Is Romney truly better at reaching out to the center than he is at getting nominated? It's hard to tell, as he appears to be prioritizing "saying what it takes to get nominated" over "reaching out to the center". If we are to infer that we should disregard Romney's more extreme statements on the assumption that once nominated he will change his views to be more pleasing to the "center", that's not exactly reassuring. It seems to be an acknowledgment that once he crosses the initial hurdle of winning the nomination, Romney will again shift his positions based on a broader set of polls.

I personally might like hanging around a Romney mansion over Christmas, watching him enjoy his family and sing carols. But I'm not willing to accept that a pattern of opinion changes that are invariably the same shifts you would take as an opportunistic candidate are, in Romney's case, all the result of careful and honest reconsideration of prior opinions. Frankly, when I see him stand behind an ad in which his campaign lies about the President's past statements, I see consistency with opportunistic flip-flopping, not a sign that Romney's a man of impeccable character. I'll admit, it would be very difficult for a man of impeccable character, and who is willing to compromise and work toward the best resolution, to win the Republican nomination. But to the extent that Romney is willing to "do what it takes to win", even if it means walking away from his past beliefs whenever a poll tells him to do so, making misleading and mendacious statements and attacks, and failing to demonstrate the sterling character he and his friends insist is hidden behind a "too perfect" facade, he is compromising his character.

To the extent that Romney can point to a seminal achievement as Governor of Massachusetts, it would be the bipartisan compromise that led to that state's healthcare reform. I would feel much better about voting for a Mitt Romney who stood firmly and squarely behind that effort - both in terms of process and outcome - as opposed to the guy I see on the campaign trail try to wriggle and squirm around its obvious parallels to the Affordable Care Act. Perhaps I should see it more as an indictment of the Republican Party than of Romney that to do so would cost him the nomination, but I can't - because Romney wants the nomination so badly he's willing to sacrifice what his friends assure us is his true character.

On a related note, Romney's odd attitude toward money has received some press. I'm willing to take it at face value - that it's not simply P.R. from a rich man who wants to look like he holds middle class values, but if this article is typical it's difficult to believe it's not at least in part a P.R. effort. I can get around the seeming contradiction between Mitt Romney's frugality and his profligate expenditures on his multiple mansions, as an indulgence of his wife and family. Even the extravagant remodeling makes sense if Romney is a man who has a strong sense of quality - if you're going to do the job, you do it right. Having invested in a costly, quality anchor for the family boat, I can understand Romney's wanting to teach his teenage son a lesson about the value of money and property by making the effort to recover the anchor when his son expressed that it was lost.

In terms of business, I can understand why Romney wanted to discourage expensive habits and purchases on the part of employees - costs that would be borne by the company and, if not necessary, eat into the bottom line. Had he not been so personally invested in the business he might have approached things differently, as the executives of publicly traded companies too often seem to view the company as a personal piggy bank. But I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he is part of that dying school of business leaders who believes that you should manage other people's money as if it's your own, and not fritter it away on indulgences you would not buy with your own money. (Realistically speaking, though, the bag lunches at the computer weren't about being cheap - by any reasonable measure of boss behavior they were a message to the staff that they should work through lunch.)

If Romney's character is to be frugal, perhaps that's part of why the $10,000 bet seemed so disingenuous. But I am not sure how I should expect Romney's frugality to play out, were he to become President and, unfortunately, the demagoguery of the campaign trail leaves no good sense of what might happen. If we look at his history as governor, Romney would work to reduce the deficit by raising taxes... today he would be fighting his own party to raise so much as a penny. (I don't buy Romney's claim that the increased revenues didn't come from taxes, given that a huge chunk of the money applied to balance the state budget came from a previously scheduled capital gains tax increase and it's perfectly reasonable to characterize some of the "fees" he created and raised as taxes. A two cent per gallon gasoline "delivery fee", for example, does not seem to be in any way distinct from a per gallon gas tax, and the overall tax burden on state residents increased over his tenure.)

A final word to Romney and his friends: If Romney wants to make a statement clarifying who he is and where he stands, apologize for his past actions that cast a shadow over his sterling character, and proceed from this point forward by demonstrating a sterling character and honest campaigning, I'll give him the benefit of the proverbial "reset button" and judge him from that point forward. But if he keeps on doing what he's doing, to the extent that his character gets muddied I don't see that he has anybody but himself to blame.

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