It’s hard to escape the impression that Mitt Romney’s campaign is about everything but Mitt Romney.
In an era of personality-driven politics, he is running on a central idea—fixing the economy—without the personal flair and calculated charisma that often define White House contenders.
It’s not the world’s worst strategy for a guy who is never going to match Barack Obama on the charm front or feel comfortable chatting with the ladies of The View. Romney is nonetheless running almost neck and neck with the incumbent after a bruising primary battle.
But to the extent that many Americans remain uneasy with Romney, it may be because he reveals so little of himself.
Indeed, Romney has cordoned off major sections of his life, leaving him little to share beyond policy talking points.
If he has one passion in life, it’s business. But Romney barely talks about his experience at Bain Capital, because he doesn’t want to engage on the thousands of jobs lost when his former firm took over ailing companies and sometimes pushed them into bankruptcy. When he talks about Bain, it’s to play defense, as when the Obama campaign put out last week’s video featuring steelworkers who were cut loose when their Bain-owned factory shut down. (Yes, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker didn’t help the team by saying on Sunday that he is uncomfortable with such attacks on private equity, though he backtracked within hours. But how can Bain not be fair game for the president, given the nature of Romney’s campaign?)
The problem for Romney is that his job was to generate big profits for himself and his partners, not to serve as a job-creating agency, which is not exactly bumper-sticker material. So if Romney can’t talk with enthusiasm about his career as a capitalist—his central credential as a candidate—what can he talk about?
Well, he had a reasonably successful term as Massachusetts governor, the only elective office he’s ever held. But we don’t hear much about that. And the reason is hardly a mystery.
The centerpiece of his four years in Boston was a health-care plan passed with bipartisan support. But since Romneycare was the model for Obamacare, which brought the candidate so much grief during the primaries, he now treats it as radioactive.
As for the rest of his Massachusetts tenure, well, Romney doesn’t seem to be selling that either. He ran as a moderate—a pro-choicer, for example—and governed pretty much in that mold. In today’s Tea Party climate, Romney doesn’t want to remind Republicans that he was anything less than severely conservative. So that’s off the table, too.
What’s left? Romney seems determined not to talk about his faith. And there is a political downside. While The New York Times ran a largely positive and respectful front-page story on his Mormonism, it did include details that some would find off-putting, such as that he encouraged a working mother to quit her job so the church would bless her efforts to adopt a child.
My own feeling is that no one has any business demanding that Romney talk about his religion. But I don’t think he’s avoiding the subject solely because, say, evangelical Christians regard Mormonism with suspicion. He is essentially a private guy who believes that such matters are between him and his church, to the point that he won’t even boast about his missionary work as a young man.
But the expectations in our Oprahfied culture are that candidates are supposed to share, even overshare, on such matters. Asked about his favorite philosopher in one of his earliest debates, George W. Bush answered: “Christ, because he changed my heart.” (Bush also spoke about kicking the drinking habit.) Obama’s embrace of religion is such that he took his book title, The Audacity of Hope, from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. (He also wrote about taking drugs as a young man.)
But Romney’s religion is more closed to outsiders than most, and he doesn’t seem to have many sins to confess, as Mormons don’t drink or smoke. So that part of Mitt also remains behind a curtain.
What remains is a kind of Swiss-cheese cutout of a life. Yes, Romney helped turn the Salt Lake City Olympics into a success, but that’s not enough to win the gold medal.
Romney doesn’t even talk much about his hobbies. Sports fan? I have no idea. Movie buff? Who knows? He once talked about hunting varmints, but that drew ridicule. Romney’s wife, Ann, brings a warm touch to describe the unzipped Mitt, but her husband remains decidedly zipped up.
Maybe Romney is running as the anti-charisma candidate. Maybe his team has decided to turn a weakness into a strength: if he can’t match the lofty orator, perhaps he can PowerPoint his way to the presidency by promising results. But on some level, Romney needs to find a way to move beyond bullet points in painting a picture of who he is.