Some people had a fit recently because Mitt Romney and his family were seen sailing on a large, expensive speedboat. His critics said that the image underscores the yawning gap between the rich and the rest of us, and proves that Romney can’t possibly relate to ordinary working Americans. A few even dusted off the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that the very rich are “different from you and me.”
The problem isn’t Romney’s wealth. Who among us wouldn’t want a life in which you never have to glance, even once, at gasoline prices? Where utility bills, retirement planning, tuition, groceries and prescriptions aren’t sources of stress? A situation in which you can afford to go on vacation, even if you don’t work, any time you feel like it?
Mitt Romney’s problem isn’t his millions. We’ve had presidents who were not only rich but also sons of the patrician class. His problem is that he’s Mitt Romney. When a person is fundamentally uncomfortable with himself, no amount of political spin can fix it.
Chew gum, Mitt. Yell at a grandkid. Something.
AND YOU ARE ...
Americans suspect that Romney is a political moderate, so it’s disconcerting that he clearly doesn’t believe he can get elected by being himself. Instead, he has taken on the mantle of a “severe conservative,” which, coming from him, sounds as authentic as saying, “I’m Spiderman.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are working hard to paint Romney as a mustache-twirling, unrepentant outsourcer. Campaign commercials feature factories allegedly shuttered because of Bain Capital, the company through which he made his fortune. New ads about investments in the tax havens of Switzerland and the Cayman Islands are the kind of body shots that could take their toll as the fight goes on.
That’s not to say Romney wouldn’t be a capable president. He seems to have all external qualities we say we want: intelligence, marital fidelity, religion, kids who aren’t an embarrassment.
You can be perfect on paper, but voters still need to feel a connection. Americans have a sense of ownership about their presidents. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had deeply flawed presidencies but remain popular because they’re absolutely comfortable in their own skins. The awkward, the paranoid, those who exude the feeling that they’d rather be anywhere but on a rope line, always have a harder time of it.
Being likable is Teflon. Ronald Reagan probably should have been impeached over the Iran-Contra scandal but remains hugely popular because he was, well, popular.
Being likable means that you can be less experienced than your opponent and still win. Al Gore was a sitting vice president, with all the charisma of a zombie. Based on their résumés alone, John McCain and not Barack Obama should be president.
Page 2 of 2 - Had Bob Dole been half as funny on the campaign trail as he was on talk shows, he might have beaten Clinton in 1996. Instead, he came off like the National Grandpa promising four years of yelling at America to stay off the White House lawn. Clinton, in contrast, seemed like he’d welcome a lawn party, and did. His reincarnation as a statesman proves that being likable covers a multitude of sins.