It is a good general principle that we ought not hold teenage wrongdoing against middle-aged people. Mitt Romney has run a business, run the Olympics, run a state, run for the Senate, and run for president. Surely we can and should judge him on his performance of those public duties.
But what if childhood conduct helps shed a light on adult behavior? Romney's teenage bullying hurts him because it is consonant with his adult record. Voters may well conclude: once a bully, always a bully; once a privileged abuser of power, always a privileged abuser of power.
If the Washington Post reports of his teenage behavior are true—and even Romney does not dispute them, except to disingenuously say he doesn't remember—what adult traits do those actions presage?
First, abuse of power. Romney was tall, handsome, and rich. But he was not athletic, at a time and a place when athleticism among young men was the coin of the realm. So he became a cheerleader. Like fellow cheerleaders George W. Bush and Rick Perry, he adopted a macho swagger, perhaps overcompensating for his lack of ability on the field. Maybe that's why he didn’t confront his nonconformist classmate alone but rather took the coward's path: assembling a posse in an episode one classmate described as like "Lord of the Flies."
A less-commented upon part of the Post's story on Romney's teenage years is nearly as cruel as the bullying of his classmate. Cranbrook, Romney's elite private academy, had a teacher who was so visually impaired the kids called him "The Bat." Romney and a pal walked The Bat up to a door. Romney beckoned The Bat to walk through first, making a sweeping motion toward the door as if it were open, but it wasn't. The Bat walked into the closed door as Mitt collapsed in fits of sadistic laughter.
One can draw a straight line from the young man who pinned down a terrified teenager and walked a blind man into a closed door, to the adult who put the family dog in a kennel and strapped it to the roof of the car, to the businessman who laid off hundreds of people, cancelled their health benefits, and paid himself millions while their company went bankrupt. And the line continues: the governor who slashed education and raised fees on the middle class, and the possible president who would use his power to cut taxes on his fellow millionaires while pushing for the gradual demise of traditional Medicare.
Then there is the aura of someone who acts as if the rules don't apply to him. The Post reported that the abused boy was ultimately expelled from Cranbrook—for smoking a cigarette. Really. The victim got expelled for smoking a cigarette, but Mitt faced no sanctions for maliciously victimizing a vulnerable student and a teacher. It's good to be a prince. Maybe that's why Romney felt entitled to take a $10 million bailout for Bain, but opposed President Obama's bailout of the auto industry. He thinks there's one set of rules for the privileged, and another for the rest of us.
This is why Romney's ancient misconduct at Cranbrook haunts him today: it helps illuminate the man who seeks to become the most powerful person in the world.