“Likability” has to be the most obnoxious element of horse-race political coverage. Though it carries impact, it’s a squishy and vacuous measure that inspires a lot of rote, anybody-can-do-it political commentary and tired questions about who you’d like to share a beer with. So journalists invite ridicule for asking politicians about their likability.
But what happens when the politician introduces the topic? Check out this exchange from the fresh interview between George Stephanopoulos and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In response to a question about conservative critics who are saying that the Republicans should hang it up if they cannot beat President Obama, the challenger said:
MITT ROMNEY: (LAUGH) Well you know, beating an incumbent is never easy. The president exudes an air of likability and friendliness, which is endearing. But at the same time, I think people recognize that he has not done the job they expected him to do and that he promised he would do.
That opened the door for Stephanopoulos, who moments later went straight at the likability question, with predictable results:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You mentioned President Obama’s likability. We had a poll question this week asking, “Who would you rather have dinner with?” Right now President Obama is beating you by about 19 points on that. So try and convince people that they’re wrong. Bring us inside. What would dinner be like at the Romney home.
MITT ROMNEY: (LAUGH) It’d be chaotic, all right? You’d have grandkids climbing all over you. Probably some food would be thrown from one side of the table to the other by one of my grandkids. It’d be a lot of fun. By the way, that’s my favorite dinner in the world is with my kids and my daughters in law and with my grandkids.
So I can’t tell people who would have more fun at whose table. But I can tell you the president’s a person that a lot of people like. I don’t dislike him myself and wish him the very best. But I think the American people are looking for someone who has the capacity to help them get good jobs and more take-home pay. And I do.
Good thing that this digression on political likability is bracketed by many smart questions by Stephanopoulos and strong responses by Romney, including a pledge to offer the public “more detail” on his governing principles.