Thursday, August 23, 2012

What Does Mitt Romney Stand For

Mitt Romney is presently scrambling to find an acceptable public face - one that his party can position on a carefully crafted $2.5 million dollar stage and says, "This is a man you should want to vote for".
The most ambitious element of stagecraft, however, will be the podium — which features 13 different video screens — the largest about 29 feet by 12 feet, the smallest about 8 feet by 8 feet and movable. All the screens will be framed in dark wood.

“Even the frames are designed to give it a sense that you’re not looking at a stage, you’re looking into someone’s living room,” said Russ Schriefer, one of Mr. Romney’s senior advisers who is running the convention planning for the campaign.

From the six-feet-high podium, staircases slope into the audience. The intended symbolism: Mr. Romney is open and approachable, not distant and far above.
That is to say, the party is hoping that its $2.5 million causes people to forget pretty much everything they've learned about Romney and, if the venture succeeds, they will consider that price to be a bargain.

Nobody asks, how did it come to that? How could it be that a man who has had national political ambitions for, it would appear, his entire life - certainly for most of his adult life - would have no record of past public acts or statements that serve to humanize him, even if not endear him to the pubic? Why is it still necessary to contrive public appearances where he attempts to look comfortable with ordinary people, or buys "hardware stuff"? Why are obscure anecdotes or stories about how he's a nice host to his house guests the closest thing people can offer to evidence that he cares about anything but himself?

The danger here is not that you'll miss an obscure fact that conceals the proverbial "real Mitt Romney" from you. The danger is that you'll resist the evidence that is right in front of your nose, and fail to acknowledge this:

Mitt Romney stands for one thing: His own self-interest.

Let me say, there's a sense in which that's not as bad as it sounds. Human beings are a self-interested lot. There's a school of thought that philanthropy is a form of self-interest - that people engage in acts of generosity because it provides them with a reward. Perhaps it's gratitude, public acknowledgment, acclaim, or just "that feeling you get inside when you do something nice", perhaps there's a religious motivation, or perhaps it's a combination of rewards, but there are rewards associated with philanthropy.

At the same time, we recognize a difference between people who show generousness with others, and those who reserves their generosity for their immediate circle of friends, or perhaps just family. We recognize the difference between the person who feels good because he supports a local charity, and the guy who provides support in exchange for a political endorsement, dropping the support the day the endorsement does not arrive, the day after the election, or the day he gets a more important endorsement that eclipses the former. We've all met people who are sweet as punch when they want something, but who lose all interest in you the moment they have it.

What to make of Mitt Romney? There's virtually nothing consistent in his record except his strong, unyielding support for tax and regulatory policies that favor his own economic interests. When he meets with or addresses ordinary people, he's stiff and awkward, at times illustrating his discomfort with a laugh that could not sound more fake.

But we also have plenty of examples of Romney looking relaxed. He looks relaxed when he's shoulder-to-shoulder with the millionaires and billionaires who are pouring money into his campaign. He looks relaxed when he's at one of their estates, believing his statements to be off-record, talking about the sheer joy of massive wealth. He looks relaxed when, not realizing the cameras are rolling, he casually talks about his family's collection of multi-million dollar horses with Sean Hannity.

It's no surprise that he's reported to be relaxed and personable when the cameras are off and he's in the presence of friends and family because, well, that's normal - they're his people. He can play host instead of running for President. But when he's outside of those contexts, no matter how hard he tries he cannot convincingly sell a connection to ordinary working Americans, or even most wealthy Americans. If you accept as true the years of evidence you have before you, the only logical conclusion is that he feels no connection. His antics look and feel fake to us because they are fake.

Think about the very small assortment of anecdotes his campaign staff pushes as examples of what a great guy he is. He's very active in his church... never mind that he's also extremely powerful in his Church and that his power is tied to his activities and contributions. From the stories his backers are pushing, it seems that Romney's acts of kindness are never random - if he helps somebody out it's because there's a personal or church connection, or because he would look like an ass if he stood by and did nothing. There's nothing per se wrong with that - it's how a lot of people in our society behave - but I'm not receptive to arguments premised upon exceptions that supposedly prove the rule.

The big examples of Romney's generosity toward others involve a missing teenager and a capsized boat. Back in 1996, the young teenage daughter of Robert Gay, one of Romney's business partners, went missing after a party in New York, Romney not only accepted his partner's invitation to help with a search, he took charge, closed up shop for the day, and sent his staff out to help with the search. True enough, but in pretty much every sense you can think of other than "blood relation", Robert Gay was one of Romney's people.

In 2003, then-Governor Romney and his sons were among the members of several families who aided the passengers of a sinking boat. In both cases, Romney's actually better off letting his surrogates talk up his acts, rather than making public pronouncements that would either diminish the legends his surrogates are attempting to build, or would rightly come across as exaggeration in the name of self-aggrandizement. In both cases, yes, Romney could have done less, but he would have paid a price for doing nothing.

It's also fair to note that Romney's surrogates are among the first to insist that anecdotes are not relevant when the stories are harmful. The now infamous incident in which Romney chopped off the hair of a gay classmate? A story far more relevant in the context of Romney's claim not to recall his participation, as opposed to in direct relation to Romney's adult character. But the more you see of Romney in action, the more you sense that you're dealing with a man who simply lacks empathy for others.

What did Romney do to make his fortune? He engaged in financial transactions designed to maximize the return for investors, and both the share of profits and management fees earned by Romney's companies. Again, there's nothing wrong with that - putting profits before all else is an accepted part of the American way of business. And at times the best way to maximize profits also served to better the targeted company. But the goal was always the profit, with any improvement to the company being incidental. If the best path to profits was to saddle the company with debt, to carve it up and sell off the parts, or to shut it down and sell off the carcass, Romney followed the path to profits.

Similarly, Romney's political career cannot be said to have been driven by principle. It's virtually impossible to find a single major issue for which Romney has not, at one time or another, taken both sides. Although Romney often is able to articulate why he takes one position or another, and those explanations can seem genuine in isolation, when you compare them side-by-side they seem contrived. And what a remarkable coincidence, his changes of heart always result in his endorsing a new position consistent with opinion polls of likely Republican voters.

On the few issues for which he does not waffle, where his positions are known, where he does not have a history of flip-flops, you'll find "his people". He wants to cut taxes for the rich, remove regulations from companies like Bain and the industries they target, remove government oversight from the games wealthy individuals and companies play to avoid taxes.... He does not appear to have any genuine concern for budget deficits or the impact of his policies on the middle class or poor.

So what can you expect Romney to stand for if elected President? Exactly what he has stood for over the course of his adult life. Policies that better the position and perpetuate the wealth of ultra-rich individuals and families, and beyond that whatever he thinks it will take to get him re-elected. There's no "secret Mitt Romney" who will be unfurled on that $2.5 million stage. It's what you see is what you get - what you see is what he is.


  1. What I find striking is that despite being in his second presidential run and about to take his party's nomination, Romney has not articulated why he should be the nominee or why he should be President. You cannot compare Romney to a generic Republican candidate because, other than being exceptionally wealthy as opposed to extremely wealthy, he goes out of his way to be the generic candidate. He won't state his policies and hides from the media and, as you point out, he follows the polls on everything.

    If you were writing a work of fiction, even of satire, about the U.S. political process a character exactly like Romney would be rejected by your editor as ridiculous, too much of a caricature to be believable. Yet about half the people in the nation take him seriously.

  2. Romney is not only refusing to state his positions (because they will be scrutinized and he is afraid of being held accountable), the principal tool of his campaign is distortion. One theme of his convention is "We built this", a direct reference to his continuing, deliberate misrepresentation of Obama's "You didn't build that" comment. His present ad campaign against Obama is a flat-out lie on the subject of welfare, to the extreme that even Joe Scarborough admits being stunned by the dishonesty.

    While close family and friends tell us that to know Romney is to love him, the experience of pretty much everybody else in the world is the opposite. To know him is to feel something ranging from dislike to hatred - and that's the reaction of die-hard Republicans. To know his policies and governing style, also, is to dislike him.

    I suspect that it's more than his obvious posing, and belief that he is owed the presidency by virtue of his daddy's name and his effort to buy his way into office. I suspect that it's also that in Romney's mad scramble to get to the top, pretty much everybody ends up marked by his footprints - the people who helped him up who found themselves forgotten when he got to the next rung, or those who opposed him and got the same sort of dishonest treatment he's currently directing at Obama.

    We are continuing to learn about Romney's character, but what we're learning is that he's a man of poor character. The defenses are nothing more than distractions, "How can you say he's a bad man when I can prove he likes puppies".


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