There’s a whole lot of hooting and derision out there today about this quote from Philip Rucker’s piece on Mitt Romney and his deliberations about whether to run for president for a third time:
If he runs again in 2016, Romney is determined to re-brand himself as authentic…
Re-brand himself as authentic! That’s just quintessential Romney phoniness, isn’t it?
I’m going to defend Romney here, not to be all Slate-pitchy (i.e. contrarian), but because this raises some interesting larger points. First of all, that line — and it’s a very good line! — doesn’t come from Romney. It comes from Rucker. Here it is in context:
If he runs again in 2016, Romney is determined to re-brand himself as authentic, warts and all, and central to that mission is making public what for so long he kept private. He rarely discussed his religious beliefs and practices in his failed 2008 and 2012 races, often confronting suspicion and bigotry with silence as his political consultants urged him to play down his Mormonism.
Now, Romney speaks openly about his service as a lay pastor in the Mormon church; recites Scripture to audiences; muses about salvation and the prophet; urges students to marry young and “have a quiver full of kids”; and even cracks jokes about Joseph Smith’s polygamy.
So, what this really means is that Romney is going to strive to be less scripted in general — less worried about showcasing his “warts” — but with a particular emphasis on his Mormon faith.
Romney’s more transparent Mormonism may be new. As detailed in Double Down, his 2012 advisers were very worried about emphasizing what they called The Mormon Thing — or TMT, for short — because they thought it might hurt with evangelicals in GOP primaries. So it’ll be interesting to see how it plays this time around.
But this whole notion that we never got to see “the real Romney” because he was too scripted is at odds with what actually happened in 2012. Romney’s unscripted moments were among those that got him in the most trouble. In some cases, this was simply not fair. There was the time he claimed, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” Democrats and reporters pounced, but he was really arguing that he liked being able to replace his health insurance when he judged it sub-par. Romney was trying to be funny and engaging — unscripted. But it came out in a way that triggered the unforgiving iron rule of political “gaffes,” which is that if an off-the-cuff quote dovetails with what has already been determined to be a candidate’s “weakness,” than torturing that quote into still more confirmation of that weakness is perfectly acceptable.
The problem wasn’t that Romney failed to put enough effort into being himself. It’s that he didn’t know how to do that without triggering the media pile-on gaffe rule.
Romney also got deservedly pilloried for unscripted moments, such as when he got caught on video delivering his “47 percent” remarks. It’s worth distinguishing between an unscripted moment that triggers unfair gaffe-athons and one that appears to reveal what a candidate really thinks. True, Romney’s “47 percent” comments — with their strange jumble of right-wing slogans and amorphous bugaboos — perhaps made him sound more sneeringly dismissive of life’s losers and takers than he really is. But his willingness to generalize about those who are dependent on government in so many different ways, and for so many different reasons, did seem to reveal a genuinely held philosophical worldview.
As it happens, the Romney team also plans to address perceptions of Romney’s lack of compassion for the less fortunate by revealing more of his authentically held values. From Rucker’s piece:
“In spite of the comments about the ‘47 percent,’ he now talks about lifting the poor,” said friend Fraser Bullock, referring to Romney’s 2012 remarks about people dependent on government. “That’s something he’s done his whole life, but he’s done it quietly, ministering his faith and helping people who are struggling with this issue or that issue. That was all hidden last time.”
Hmmm. But remember, in 2012, Romney’s policy proposals, which appeared to reflect his actual worldview about government, were seen by majorities as being more favorable to the wealthy. I don’t have any idea whether displaying Romney’s compassion and charity would be enough to offset that in a general election (presuming he makes it that far). And though Romney is making new and ambitious rhetorical nods towards poverty and inequality, I don’t have any idea whether he’s going to offer a more, er, authentic agenda for combating those things this time.
But that might be a better place to start than with an elaborate plan to showcase a personal, faith-driven predilection towards helping the poor. Sure, charisma, values, and biography matter. But the process by which the political gods — which is to say, the political press corps — determine whether a candidate is “authentic” or revealing his or her “real” character can be arbitrary, cruel, unpredictable, and often self-contradictory. Remember how Al Gore was relentlessly pilloried for simultaneously being stiff and inauthentic and for revealing his genuinely supercilious character?
Today Romney is the one who is on the receiving end of this process. Because it’s been decided that his “weakness” in 2012 was his in-authenticity and failure to show his “real” values, it’s a self-reinforcing joke that he self-consciously plans to be more “authentic” this time. But the real problem here is this notion of “authenticity” as a political value to aspire to. It’s a sucker’s game. A candidate’s policies and actual worldview should matter far more.