In all the meetings he’s had with his political team, one wonders if anyone has ever told Mitt Romney, “Be yourself.”
If someone did, Romney surely would want to see the PowerPoint presentation and all the supporting evidence before taking such daring, counterintuitive advice. But Romney could do worse than letting it all hang out, which, for him, means buttoning up and diving into the data for some rigorously bloodless analysis.
Mitt Romney’s foremost sin as a politician has always been trying too hard. His gaffes tend to come from straining to identify with people. On defense over the downsizing work of Bain? Say you once feared getting pink slips yourself. In Detroit? Say Ann Romney drives a couple of Cadillacs. At a NASCAR event alien to you? Say you know some of the owners.
If Romney is the Republican nominee, he would be wise to resist all the advice he’ll get on how to forge the kind of connection with voters that has heretofore escaped him. He should play by different rules: Don’t go out of your way to empathize. Don’t tell anyone about your passions. Don’t share endearing personal stories.
Romney needn’t dazzle with his personality or move people with his struggles. The standard he has to meet is the one Barack Obama famously established for Hillary Clinton back in their 2008 campaign — “likable enough.” People have to like Romney the way they like their accountant. They have to consider him trustworthy and capable, full stop.
Romney is a fundamentally decent man who has been true to his family and his faith. He’s even-tempered to a fault and personally polite (if politically ruthless). But he won’t win the “Would you want to have a beer with him?” contest with Obama, and not even the “Would you want to have a chocolate milk with him?” contest. Kids will never faint at his rallies, and journalists will never fall over themselves praising his eloquence. The country will always be blissfully free of “Mitt-mania.”
Romney is a workmanlike politician. His pitch for himself should be that he’ll be an equally workmanlike president. Although it hasn’t set the GOP on fire, his truest, most natural message is that he’s a turnaround artist — the guy who can rationally evaluate a situation, come up with a plan and execute it. Romney can’t fall back simply on the dreaded Michael Dukakis buzzword of “competence.” His case has to include a vision of a better America. But his implicit slogan should be “No one ever regretted hiring Mitt Romney to do a job.”
Romney has been the default candidate in the Republican-nomination fight and will inevitably be the default candidate in the general-election campaign, if he’s the nominee. Voters will first decide if they are inclined to retire President Obama. Then, they will ask whether Romney is acceptable. As a politician, sheer acceptability is one of his most prized qualities. In a Saturday Night Live skit recently, the Romney character said the verdict of the Republican voters on him was “Eh, I guess.”
No chiliastic expectations will attach to Romney. No one will expect him to turn back the tides. That’s just as well. The messianic model of the 2008 Obama campaign is un-republican and must, by its very nature, disappoint. Romney’s promise is more pedestrian, if less juvenile: to comb through the federal books. When Barack Obama made the same pledge during his first campaign, it was laughably insincere. One imagines Romney literally doing it, at all hours and with relish.
For all Romney’s flaws, there are worse men to make president at a time when the federal government needs to be transformed and the economy made more efficient. In 2008, Obama asked the nation to do itself the favor of allowing him to bestow on it all his history-making grandeur. In 2012, if he gets the chance, Romney should ask the nation something much more basic: “Hire me.”