This sounds like one of those pieces of advice for politicians which has been invoked so often that it’s become somewhat hackneyed over the years. “Just let the candidates be themselves.” I’m sure it’s even older than this, but the first time I recall seeing it was from an episode of The West Wing. Let Bartlet be Bartlet. And sometimes it can actually be pretty good advice which has worked to benefit various candidates over the years.
But is this the magic prescription for Mitt Romney? It’s tough to argue that the media has been running wild for some time now with a theme that Mitt is this robotic, Richie Rich character, devoid of “real” emotions and unable to get in touch with the common man. He certainly doesn’t help his cause when he talks about his fear of getting a pink slip or asking Alabama to play Sweet Home Alabama.
So is the secret to simply abandon these attempts to blend in with the hoi polloi and just… be himself? That’s the advice that Rich Lowry has for the former Governor at National Review this week.
If Romney is the Republican nominee, he would be wise to resist all the advice he’ll get on how to forge the kind of connection with voters that has heretofore escaped him. He should play by different rules: Don’t go out of your way to empathize. Don’t tell anyone about your passions. Don’t share endearing personal stories.
Romney needn’t dazzle with his personality or move people with his struggles. The standard he has to meet is the one Barack Obama famously established for Hillary Clinton back in their 2008 campaign — “likable enough.” People have to like Romney the way they like their accountant. They have to consider him trustworthy and capable, full stop…
Romney is a workmanlike politician. His pitch for himself should be that he’ll be an equally workmanlike president. Although it hasn’t set the GOP on fire, his truest, most natural message is that he’s a turnaround artist — the guy who can rationally evaluate a situation, come up with a plan and execute it. Romney can’t fall back simply on the dreaded Michael Dukakis buzzword of “competence.” His case has to include a vision of a better America. But his implicit slogan should be “No one ever regretted hiring Mitt Romney to do a job.”
Rich sums up his column by saying that the one clear request which Mitt Romney should put before the voters can be boiled down to two words. “Hire me.”
It’s an interesting concept, and I might be on board with it if we can address a couple of baseline questions up front. This suggestion brings up the nagging problem of possibly overestimating the skills and priorities of the average voter. Lowry’s advice is terrific if you’re applying for a regular job and the only person you need to impress is the supervisor at the widget plant. But there is always a bit of beauty pageant involved in every election. Candidates who are not sufficiently telegenic don’t tend to go far in the modern media age, and if people don’t like you they’re probably not going to vote for you. We poll the public’s impressions on such things for a reason. Not to take anything away from the Gipper’s skills and achievements in office, but it would dishonest to claim that Ronald Reagan’s famous warmth and cheerful, humorous personality hurt him at the ballot box. If we “let Mitt be Mitt,” how much will people like the real Mitt? (I’m not saying they won’t. I’m just asking here.)
But if that hurdle is overcome, maybe this is just the retooling that Team Mitt needs. People don’t need to love Mitt Romney… they just need to not hate him and believe that he’ll be competent to do a better job than the current White House occupant. It could be a tough needle to thread, though. Romney can’t afford to come out with some sort of, “sorry I tried to act human” speech. He just needs to slide into a slightly more comfortable mode of operation where he doesn’t come across like he’s trying to force it. Oh… and no more comments about liking grits please. It’s not helping.