Ann Romney’s Big Boo Boo

Nevermind Clint—it was Mrs. Romney who failed to deliver at the RNC. Judith Grey on how she blew an opportunity to humanize her husband by talking about her struggle with MS.

09.03.12 8:45 AM ET

Last week, as the Republican convention came to a close, a single question prevailed: Is Mitt Romney better off today than he was four days ago?

Unfortunately for Mitt and the GOP, the answer seems to be a resounding not really.

While most of the blame has been attributed to Clint Eastwood’s unvetted antics and the fact that headliners Rubio and Christie spent a big chunk of their speeches talking about themselves, the real culprit may be, oddly enough, the person who’s been most praised: Ann Romney.

Although she looked “stunning” according to Peggy Noonan, and Michelle Cottle deemed her speech “solid,” Mrs. Romney, in fact, did not deliver. In a major way.

She failed to play the best card in her hand—the MS card.

Ann Romney was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998, and so had the unique opportunity to speak in graphic detail of the crippling disease and the qualities her struggle illuminated in her husband. She should have spoken of the prospect of spending the rest of her life in a wheelchair and how Mitt’s unwavering support, love and perseverance helped her prevail.

If he stayed up with her through the night, she should have mentioned it. If he had to carry her upstairs, she should have said so. If he emptied her bedpans, she should have shared that too.

Instead, she chose to gloss over the subject and speak in generalities. She challenged the notion that she’d had a perfect life given she’d had five sons, MS, and breast cancer. “A storybook marriage?” she asked rhetorically. “No, not at all.”

That was it. That was all she thought to say about the topic. She didn’t speak of being numb throughout the entire right side of her body, of the debilitating fatigue that left her bedridden, of her depression or an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Nor did she mention Mitt’s resilience and unconditional love for her even when her symptoms were most severe.

An interview that the Romneys gave to The Boston Globe in 2007 captured the details that she should have included:

“In 1998, when Ann's primary care doctor referred her to a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Mitt went along. It was there, sitting in the neurologist's waiting room, when Mitt grasped the severity of what his wife was up against. One of the brochures he spotted was about Lou Gehrig's disease, another about multiple sclerosis…Mitt turned to his wife and, seeing the worry in her eyes, said, ‘I can deal with anything, so long as it's not fatal.’”

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A recent interview with Time.com provided more texture when Anne reflected on her husband’s ability to know exactly what to say in the exact moment she needed to hear it.

“He said to me, ‘I don’t care how sick you are. I don’t care if you’re in a wheelchair. I don’t care if I never eat another dinner in my life. I can eat cereal and toast and be just fine. As long as we’re together, everything will be OK.’”

These were the details that she needed to share at the convention in order to paint a picture of Mitt Romney as a man of both tremendous sensitivity and great character. These were the stories she needed to tell to counter perceptions of her husband as being the heartless, gaffe-prone, corporate raider that we’re so used to hearing about.

It would have been an especially powerful message to the female voters Romney is so desperate to attract. As recent polls have revealed, Romney’s favorability rating among female registered voters has decreased to a mere 34 percent, down 9 point since May, according to ABC  News/Washington Post polls.

In fact, testimony of Mitt’s devotion during the most trying periods of her illness—her MS has been in remission for over 10 years—might have had the potential to move female voters perhaps more than she knew.

According to a recent study, men who stick by their wives as they are suffering from serious diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis are not as common as we’d like to imagine.

While only 3 percent of marriages ended after the male partner received such a diagnosis, the study found, almost 21 percent of the marriages resulted in divorce when it was the woman who got sick. (The study found lower divorce rate among long-term marriages.)

Mitt, honorably, stood by his wife. And it would have helped his candidacy for the 22.3 million people who were watching Ann Romney’s speech last Tuesday night to have known that.

What’s more, Mitt’s response to Ann’s illness not only attests to his loyalty to her as a husband, but to his agility as a person, too—his ability to solve problems and function in unpredictable circumstances. (One of the hallmarks of MS is that the symptoms often recede and return with no prior warning.)

As clinical psychologist and Vice President of the Professional Resource Center at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Dr. Rosalind Kalb explains: “This is a unique challenge for couples and every couple approaches it differently.”

Being in a relationship with someone who suffers from MS “takes a lot of patience,” she said. “It takes a lot of understanding of what’s going on and the ability to start to do things differently in order to make it all work. People who can be more flexible and who can approach these challenges from a problem-solving perspective—as opposed to throwing up their hands and saying this is too hard, I don’t get it, I can’t deal with it”—are far more successful at overcoming the challenges of living with someone with the disease.

One of the most important traits for a person in a relationship with an MS patient, she believes—given the unpredictable nature of the disease—is to be "adaptive".

As I spoke to Dr. Kalb over the phone on Friday, I couldn’t help but think that this was one of the most defining characteristics of an effective president as well. The doctor agreed.

“For more reasons than having a loved one with MS, yes, I think we want our president to be a flexible person who can solve problems.”

The parallels are obvious. So obvious, in fact, that it causes one to wonder why, when Ann Romney enjoyed the largest audience she'll ever have, her husband's campaign didn't set her loose.

Did they think that recalling her illness would come off as manipulative? Did they fear it was too specific to her life and would alienate voters not associated with the disease? Did they feel that a more over-arching theme about “love” would have broader appeal?

Whatever the answer, it's clear that Mitt Romney would have been far better off letting Ann be Ann than letting Clint be Clint.