Friday, September 21, 2012

The hunt for the "real" Romney

A while back I posted about the futile search for the "real" Barack Obama, and I suggested that his true identity wasn't a secret. We see him governing every day, and he's not about to change his behavior after getting reelected/the 2014 midterms/becoming a lame duck, etc.

I feel quite similarly about efforts to divine the "true" Mitt Romney. Is he the centrist he was when he governed Massachusetts, just acting conservative to keep favor with Republican activists? Did his "47%" comments reveal his true colors, showing him to be a hardcore Ayn Randian who was just faking it back in the Bay State?

To me, these pursuits are a bit silly. Mitt Romney is a politician. (Note: That is a line of work, not an insult.) That means he attempts to manage coalitions, and the coalition he dealt with in Massachusetts is very different from the one he's dealing with today. He is currently trying to keep together people who want lower taxes for CEOs, people who want abortion providers jailed, and people who wear tricorn hats with Lipton bags hanging from them. These people do not all see eye to eye. But Romney is trying to keep them in his tent while winning over some more moderate senior citizens, suburban homemakers, and others.

As for his 47% comments, yes, that was a closed-door event, but that doesn't mean he was revealing his "true" preferences to that group while deceiving everyone outside. That was a campaign appearance like any other. While it was, in my opinion, foolish for him to believe that no one outside the event would ever hear his words, we don't really know whether that's the key to knowing how he would govern as president.

As president, Romney's decisions would be molded by the exact same forces that are molding his campaign. Yes, there would be pressure on him to moderate his policies to remain popular, but there are pressures on him now to do the same thing, and he's largely resisting them. He appears more concerned about offending the right than he does about offending the center, and there's no reason to believe he'd behave differently as president. This is not a criticism of him or a claim about who he truly is at his core; it is just an acknowledgment that Romney is, like any politician, a product of party and circumstance.

Now, understanding the psychology of a presidential candidate can certainly be an interesting and enjoyable pursuit. Mitt Romney, according to Nate Silver, has about a 1 in 4 chance of being elected president in November; that puts his chances way ahead of those of everyone else in the world, save Obama. That in itself makes Romney an interesting person. Beyond that, he's had a pretty interesting life. Learning what makes him tick is potentially worthwhile. But it won't help us understand his policy or political decisions, and it won't lead us to discover who is truly is. We can see who he truly is every day.


  1. I actually blame Romney less for his troubles than the character failings of the Republican Party. He's behaving exactly the way he has to given the realities of running a campaign and ginning up a base that is completely disconnected from the reality the rest of us live in. There's no reconciling the two.

    There is one difference, though. When Bush said he cared about climate change, the base wasn't bothered because they assumed he was lying for the cause. If Romney says it, they're not sure if he's really on their side or not which puts Romney in a worse position.

    This is a problem Democrats have all the time because a lot of Democrats can never be sure if a Democrat is really on their side, or representing monied interests. When a Democrat says something or maneuvers something, the Democratic voter can't be sure it's all with their ultimate interests in mind. The GOP faithful usually know no matter what their leaders say, they will destroy entitlements, hamper government effectiveness and hurt liberals.

    1. Dokrider wrote: "The GOP faithful usually know no matter what their leaders say, they will destroy entitlements, hamper government effectiveness and hurt liberals."

      Really? Where is the evidence for this? The Bush years and the years the GOP held Congress indicate that far from destroying entitlements or decreasing spending, exactly the opposite occurs.

      Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, year after year of appropriations, Bridges to Nowhere,and on and on... The left's great fear that the GOP is going to slash anything is laughable.

  2. I think you're right about this. Santorum, say, could have issued more moderate statements, and his backers wouldn't have lost faith in him. Romney has to walk a finer line.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. What is your view about how Romney's role as a business person will affect his work in the White House? He describes himself as a "numbers" person. As someone who works for an international corporation, I deal with "numbers" executives often. My experience, which seems to be validated by studies cited by Jeffrey Pfeiffer and Robert Sutton (e.g., in Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management) is that no one's metrics give a complete picture of what's going on, but we often act as if they do. I wonder whether this quality of thinking that because you know "the numbers," you know everything you need to know will have an adverse impact on how he governs.

    In fact, given how little knowledge of the American electorate Romney's 47% remark suggests, I wonder just how good Romney is at understanding valid data in the political sphere. He's been running for president since 2007 at least -- why doesn't he know that among the 47% (especially in the South) are some number of his voters?

    Some of his troubles seem related to his staff (e.g., not knowing you're not supposed to talk about MI6), which is ironic because picking good staff (rather than folks you just enjoy being with or who cater to your whims especially well) is key to business success. Do you have any sense (perhaps from his MA experience) whether he will pick good staff in Washington? Many presidents seem to have trouble in this area -- I'm not sure Rahm Emanuel did Obama many favors, for example. & if you come from outside of Washington, you may not really know who you need or even what they're supposed to be doing.

  5. Carol, my impression is that business expertise simply doesn't translate very well into political expertise. I'm not suggesting that's a negative for Romney, just that there's a lot of rhetoric from both parties about the need for people with business experience in politics when the two are actually very dissimilar. What a CEO would do to "create jobs" looks nothing like what a president would or could do. Cutting expenses during lean seasons may be the right course for a business but could be very damaging to the economy if done by the federal government.

    I wouldn't be worried too much about the difficulties of being an outsider. Romney would come in with a lot of advisors from the national party. My impression (which is admittedly limited) of his work as governor is that he seemed well aware of his limitations with regards to the Democratic legislature and still manage to push a solid agenda (albeit a more moderate one than he'd push in DC). I'm guessing he'd have a strong focus on building ties with Congress, but of course presidents have surprised me along these lines before.