This week the pundits rightly observed for the umpteenth time that Mitt Romney doesn’t have much of that charisma many think is an essential part of politics. He will never be emotionally bonded to voters in the way presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were. He’s smart. He’s polite. But small talk with average voters isn’t his strong suit. If he were your neighbor you might have trouble keeping up a conversation about trivial matters, but he’d be there if your power went out. And he’d have a neatly typed (maybe laminated) list of the best plumber, electrician, etc., in the area. That said, he is also the guy who gives money out of his pocket to a stranger in need.
But so what if he is sort of stiff and very 1950s in vocabulary and manner? These are not the greatest personal shortcomings in modern society. What’s more, look at who he’s running against now and who he’d face in the general election. Newt Gingrich has distinguished himself by his recklessness and obnoxiousness. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) is not exactly trying to win voters over by charm. And Rick Santorum is, along with Romney, a candidate who thrives on the power of his argument and policies. (In fact, his challenge in debates has been in reigning in his intense personality so as not to appear angry.) Where is the great people person who is going to win over voters by being more likeable than he?
In the general election it sure won’t be President Obama. It took a while for the press to get over its infatuation with the president. But soon mainstream journalists started using terms such as “robotic,” “reserved,” and “emotionally remote” to describe the fellow with two Ivy League degrees and a 37 bowling average. He is not Mr. Warm and Fuzzy. He’s not the average American.
To relate to ordinary Americans, Obama of late has taken to fiery rhetoric and yelling. He hopped on his jumbo, taxpayer-financed bus and went out to meet ordinary voters. He started these campaign — oops! — entirely government-related trips to critical electoral states by calling everyone “folks” (Is that what he and the missus called their Hyde Park neighbors?). And pretty soon you’re hearin’ a lot of droppin’ of g’s to make him sound like he’s relatin’ to us, ya know? But then he gets mad.
No more “superior temperament” (meaning cool and calm, eerily rational). Soon he’s yelling at Wall Street, bashing the rich, and clubbing the Washington establishment (which I find hilarious coming from the U.S. president.).
This is connecting with the American people? Whatever star quality voters saw in him in 2008 has plainly vanished. What is left is someone alternately impatient (with Congress and the unappreciative public), thin-skinned and hugely egotistical (the fourth best president?!). If voters must swoon and fall under your spell to win the White House, Obama is every bit as challenged as Romney. If warmth is a requirement for the Oval Office, he better start on the Obama presidential library plans. (Good grief, will it be a replica of the Temple of Zeus?)
Moreover, maybe voters aren’t in the mood for the phony intimacy of politicians. They’ve gotten more cynical, not so touched by biting-the-lower-lip politicians who tout their humble origins. They want answers. They want competence. They want a feasible game plan for diverting the country from the path to fiscal ruin. They want someone who is going to do more and talk less. (In this regard Santorum is very smart to emphasize what he has done so as to assure voters he can deliver in the future.)
I don’t think Romney’s problem is that he isn’t warm or tuned in to ordinary Americans. He’s going to have much bigger issues first fending off an invigorated Santorum and, if he becomes the nominee, combating the nonstop attacks warning that he will “end Medicare,” starve the poor and cut government “to the bone” (if only). Frankly, being stiff and a polite 1950s TV dad type might help work against the effort to paint him as a heartless businessman or a dastardly Republican determined to force grandma to choose between food and medicine. The left makes the mistake of painting him as personally uncaring and the right underestimates the degree to which voters are fed up with cloying politicians.