The Washington Post

Romney plays the likability card


How softly he spoke, his forehead glistening. He babbled a little — not unheard of at such a moment — and began, “It’s nice to maybe funny this time, not on purpose. We’ll see what happens.’’

Yes, throughout Monday night’s final presidential debate — and oh, how both participants will miss them — Mitt Romney tried to make himself attractive to the small number of perhaps less informed but definitely influential women in America who still haven’t chosen a candidate. And to that end, Romney was “Moderate Mitt” on the military front, peace-loving as never before.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011. View Archive

“[W]e can’t kill our way out of this mess,’’ the candidate said of the war on terror. Apparently — and correctly, I believe — having concluded that likability matters more than foreign policy acumen to those who have yet to decide how they’ll vote, the former governor of Massachusetts went easy on his opponent, even passing on the chance to exploit the president’s vulnerability on the attack that killed our ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans on Sept. 11. He inched closer to the president on a number of matters, suddenly optimistic that the 2014 timeline for getting our troops out of Afghanistan would work out just fine.

And in a stunning recreation of the John Kerry cartoon character created by his party in 2004, Romney even praised a plan hatched when “Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the world reject these terrorists.’’ Can you imagine the derision if any Democrat running for president said the U.N.-sponsored answer lay in economic development, education and gender equality?

Still making up for his sleepy presentation in the first debate, Obama, on the other hand, began the evening with the hungry look of an eagle eyeing dinner. He pressed every advantage, armed with such zingers as the joke that Romney’s comment naming Russia as our chief geopolitical foe was so outdated that “the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.’’

There’s nothing wrong with looking alive, mind you; Obama was sharp where Romney wobbled. But did Romney lose the debate and win the day?

The line that Obama’s supporters liked best, about how the military has fewer bayonets and horses than it did in good old 1916, may have been a big hit in New York, but in Norfolk, I’m not so sure. As my friend Elizabeth De Angelo, a Navy vet, saw it, “Obama’s condescending comments about horses made no sense” and “only sounds funny if you don’t understand how the Navy functions.’’

“We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land,’’ the president said sarcastically, helping himself not at all with the sensitive sorts who are late-minute deciders. “We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.” If there’s one thing the most moderate of women voters can live without, it’s a heaping helping of disdain.

Yet nothing said in any of the debates was as ugly or ill-advised as the new Obama ad with the tag line, “Mitt Romney. Not one of us’’ — a shopworn slogan featured in racist campaigns over the past half-century. The president’s advisers insist that the phrase refers only to Romney’s indifference to the auto industry and other workers, but what happened to giving the voter a little credit? And how is this different from the offensive Republican line that we’re “taking our country back” next month, though from whom is never spelled out, and doesn’t have to be. If Romney’s “not one of us,’’ is that on the basis of religion, because he’s a Mormon? Or class, because he grew up in privilege?

Sometimes, I wonder whether, after the Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision that’s brought more money into politics than ever, Obama will be the last president who started with nothing but smarts and worked his way to the Oval Office. So to see his campaign stoop to painting Romney as “the other” is quite a letdown.

As Obama the conciliator seeks to convince us that he and his challenger could not be more different, Romney has set off just as briskly in the opposite direction. Not so long ago, he told us that our whole way of life was on the line in this election. Now, speaking to those last moderate holdouts who’ve yet to make a decision on this election, he mixes jabs on Israel, Iran and that mythical Obama “apology tour” with agreement on Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and drone strikes. We’re not so different after all, this new Romney suggests.

The self-immolating 2012 political tell-all “The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins,’’ by former White House lawyer, Joe Biden staffer and lobbyist Jeff Connaughton certainly made that point convincingly, showing how on both sides of the aisle and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, meaningful financial reform was never even a goal after the ’08 meltdown. And with Obama adopting campaign slogans from Jesse Helms, maybe it’s time to wonder whether Mitt “I concurred” Romney has more of a point than I wish were the case.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s She the People blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.



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