Students of the fictional presidency of Jed Bartlet on television’s The West Wing recall well the advice encapsulated in the title of one episode: Let Bartlet be Bartlet. Whatever the pressures to strike this or that pose, the wise politician and, just as importantly, the wise politician’s handlers know that usually the best course is to do what the sports coaches call “playing your natural game.” In life we call it being yourself.
But what if your natural self is not that appealing to the voters, what indeed if your natural self is not all that natural? This is the conundrum confronting the team advising Mitt Romney. From the hordes of journalists, pundits, and armchair experts gathered here in Tampa, the campaign has received the same unsolicited advice: it needs to “humanize” the Republican presidential nominee, formally anointed as such on Tuesday, to present what the National Journal calls his “warm, fuzzy side.” Romney’s people, they argue, should exploit the unique opportunity afforded by a convention—with its hours of free airtime—to introduce him to the American people. When I ran into the Mississippi governor and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Haley Barbour, on the convention floor he was clear: “People need to—and will—get to know a lot more about Mitt Romney,” he told me. “By the end of business, people need to know about his wife, his faith, and his family.”
Part of this is automatic thinking, the kind of thing people say about every nominee who is not an incumbent. Part of it is a recognition that Romney has a specific problem, that like Al Gore or John Kerry before him, the former Massachusetts governor comes over as stiff and wooden and fails the beer test: he’s not somebody most voters would choose to have a drink with.
But part of it is hard-headed political calculation. In this reading, everything else about the 2012 race is now fixed. Americans’ views of their own financial circumstances and of the wider economy are now in place; the economic numbers themselves are not likely to shift much between now and November 6. Most voters’ assessments of President Obama are settled now, too, for good or ill. The one variable is the public’s rating of Romney. That could still alter substantially, moved first by Thursday’s acceptance speech and, more crucially, by his performance in October’s television debates. At the moment he is still an unknown quantity for many: a CBS/New York Times poll found 31 percent of Americans say they don’t know Romney or have an opinion of him. If those voters can warm to the challenger, that could give him the edge in what is, according to national surveys, a dead-heat of a race between him and Obama.
Hence the humanization strategy. It sounds logical enough, but it is, in fact, fraught with risk. For one thing, as the pollster and focus group whiz Frank Luntz reportedly told a breakfast of Republican delegates from Pennsylvania, “If you have to assert you are human, there’s no way you are going to be elected.” Officially, he was speaking about Gore, but the point applies just as cruelly to Romney: that a humanization strategy even exists is a sign of its futility.
The empirical evidence leans in a similar direction. Efforts to turn political wood into flesh usually founder. Take Ann Romney’s encomium to her husband, delivered on Tuesday night. The passages in an otherwise warmly-received address that did not work were those that sought to cast herself and her husband as an ordinary couple, just like the viewers watching at home, who began their married life in a basement apartment eating pasta and tuna, using a fold-down ironing board as a dining room table. But these were hardly what Neil Sedaka would have called the hungry years: as bloggers noted, the young Romneys were scraping by on stocks given to them by his father worth about $377,000 in today’s money.
The candidate himself perennially stumbles when he strays from policy and tries to talk personally. That was how he fell into the hole of citing his friendships with NASCAR team owners or of revealing that Ann owns “a couple of Cadillacs.” It’s what happens when a vanilla personality tries to come over as rum-and-raisin: it goes wrong. Recall the long smooch Gore planted on Tipper’s lips at his 2000 convention, trying too hard to show that he was a man not a software program.
With memories like that in mind, some thoughtful conservatives want to let Romney be Romney. At a National Review party—held unapologetically at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club—the magazine’s Senior Editor Jay Nordlinger recalled how he wished that John McCain had admitted in 2008 that he was a “banged-up old crock,” embracing his age and crotchetiness, rather than trying to project a more vital image. Nordlinger thinks Romney should similarly embrace his own stiffness and WASP-like reserve—his faith is Mormon, but his sensibility is WASP—and not pretend to be anything different. At least then he would have the benefit of authenticity.
Few political consultants would dare suggest their candidate surrender on likeability. Even Richard Nixon tried to smile. But this might just be the time when a stiff personality could work. For in a climate of economic gloom, surely voters could be persuaded that what they need is not a touchy-feely president—a luxury of the 1990s perhaps—but a rigorous, unsentimental CEO. The campaign could make a virtue of the fact that Romney is, to use a phrase once hurled in insult at Britain’s Hugh Gaitskell, a “dessicated calculating machine.” In that spirit, the National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru tweeted after Ann Romney’s address: “Speech I’d have preferred: ‘my husband is a robot. A robot programmed to create jobs.’”
This seems to be the preferred approach of the candidate himself. He quoted Popeye in a round of weekend interviews to declare “I am what I am,” having earlier said that he won’t bow to those keen “to personalize me like I’m a piece of meat.” He equates self-disclosure with Oprah’s couch and won’t go anywhere near it. The favored course seems to be that charted by New Jersey governor Chris Christie (in a speech, incidentally, that put the cause of promoting Chris Christie ahead of promoting the nominee), who said Republicans sought “respect over love.” For Mitt Romney, that seems like the more realistic goal.