The Unbearable Lightness of Being Mitt

One of my regrets in life is losing the chance to debate Mitt Romney and whip his ass.

It was the fall of 2002. Mitt had thundered into Massachusetts with enough money to grab the Republican nomination for governor. Meanwhile, I was doing my best to secure the Democratic nomination. One week before the Democratic primary I was tied in the polls with the state treasurer, according to the Boston Herald, well ahead of four other candidates. But my campaign ran out of cash. Despite pleas from my campaign manager, I didn’t want to put a second mortgage on the family home. The rest is history: The state treasurer got the nomination, I never got to debate Mitt, and Mitt won the election.

With Trump, Gingrich, Bachmann, and possibly Palin now in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, “GOP” is starting to mean Goofy, Outrageous, and Peculiar. Mitt would pose the most serious challenge to a second Obama term.

I say this not because Mitt’s mind is the sharpest of the likely contenders (Gingrich is far more nimble intellectually). Nor because his record of public service is particularly impressive (Tim Pawlenty took his governorship seriously while Mitt as governor seemed more intent on burnishing his Republican credentials outside Massachusetts). Nor because Mitt is the most experienced at running a business (Donald Trump has managed a giant company while Mitt made his money buying and selling companies.) Nor, finally, because he’s especially charismatic or entertaining (Sarah Palin can work up audiences and Mike Huckabee is genuinely funny and folksy, while Mitt delivers a speech so laboriously he seems to be driving a large truck).

Mitt Romney’s great strength is he looks, sounds, and acts presidential.

Policy wonks like me want to believe the public pays most attention to candidates’ platforms and policy positions. Again and again we’re proven wrong. Unless a candidate is way out of the mainstream (Barry Goldwater and George McGovern come to mind), the public tends to vote for the person who makes them feel safest at a visceral level, who reassures them he’ll take best care of the country – not because of what he says but because of how he says it.

In this regard, looks matter. Taller candidates almost always win over shorter ones (meaning even if I’d whipped him in a debate, Romney would probably still have won the governorship). Good-looking ones with great smiles garner more votes than those who scowl or perspire (Kennedy versus Nixon), thin ones are elected over fat ones (William Howard Taft to the contrary notwithstanding), and the bald need not apply (would Eisenhower have made it if Stevenson had been blessed with a thick shock?).

Voices also matter. Deeper registers signal gravitas; higher and more nasal emanations don’t command nearly as much respect (think of Reagan versus Carter, or Obama versus McCain).

And behavior matters. Voters prefer candidates who appear even-tempered and comfortable with themselves (this was Obama’s strongest advantage over John McCain in 2008). They also favor the candidate who projects the most confidence and optimism (think FDR, Reagan, and Bill Clinton).

Romney has it all. Plus a strong jaw, gleaming white teeth, and perfect posture. No other Republican hopeful comes close.

What does Mitt stand for? It’s a mystery — other than a smaller government is good and the Obama administration is bad. Of all the Republican hopefuls, Romney has most assiduously avoided taking positions. He’s written two books but I challenge anyone to find a clear policy in either. Both books are so hedged, conditioned, boring and bland that once you put them down you can’t pick them up.

Mitt is reputed to say whatever an audience wants to hear, but that’s not quite right. In reality he says nothing, but does it in such way audiences believe they’ve heard what they want to hear. He is the chameleon candidate. To call Mitt Romney an empty suit is an insult to suits.

Yet Romney is gaining ground over Obama. According to the most recent Marist poll, in a hypothetical presidential matchup Obama now holds a one percent point lead over Romney,  46 to 45. In January, Obama led Romney by 13 points.

Why is Mitt doing so well? Partly because Obama’s positions are by now well known, while voters can project anything they want on to Mitt. It’s also because much of the public continues to worry about the economy, jobs, and the price of gas at the pump, and they inevitably blame the President.

But I suspect something else is at work here, too. To many voters, President Obama sounds and acts presidential but he doesn’t look it. Mitt Romney is the perfect candidate for people uncomfortable that their president is black. Mitt is their great white hope.

Robert Reich served as the 22nd United States Secretary of labor under President William Jefferson Clinton from 1992 to 1997. He shares many of his thoughts and columns at Robert Reich.org, where this post first appeared.

12 replies »

  1. The article was great until the last paragraph…why is it that liberals always bring up race? Is it so hard to believe that the people are just getting tired of Obama’s failed policies? Absolutely disgusting of you.

  2. give romney credit. his intellect is far beyond yours and he is a born leader, more that i could say for some whiny healthcare blogger who wishes people knew his name.

  3. Please stick to health care. It should have been easy to do a post about Romney if you wanted, and center it around his health care plan.


  4. Most, including me, think this post doesn’t belong here. It should be deleted.

  5. Keep THCB about healthcare please. Why is this here and how did it get on? This was a strange outlier (at least I hope it remains an outlier), regardless of whether or not one agrees with Reich’s political opinions and personal characterizations. A similar off-topic posting from the other end of the spectrum would be equally inappropriate.

  6. “Partly because Obama’s positions are by now well known”

    Exactly what are Obama’s positions? I don’t think we know any more given his spineless, so called “compromise”, to Republicans and the Bush tax cuts and failure to fight for true (cost cutting) health reform. Obama’s positions are no more known that Democrat positions, which change on the wind.

    “that plays the race card by equating support for Romney with racism.”

    I guess we’ll demand to see Mitt’s long form birth certificate as well.

  7. What does this opinion piece have to do with health care? I have read this blog for years and am deeply disappointed that this racist trash piece was posted.

  8. “To many voters, President Obama sounds and acts presidential but he doesn’t look it. Mitt Romney is the perfect candidate for people uncomfortable that their president is black. Mitt is their great white hope.”

    Ah, I see. Republicans are racists. That’s some real intellectual heft you’re throwing around. Very impressive.

  9. Elitist policy wonks like you are why this country is over the brink. insufficient faith in your self to put your own money at risk, but you have no trouble putting everyone else’s money down the toilet. Prototype liberal.

  10. I was expecting an article critiquing Romney’s health care policies.

    Instead I get an OpEd on the 2012 presidential race that plays the race card by equating support for Romney with racism.


  11. Interesting post, what does it have to do with health care? If you are going to let someone end posts by broadly classifying supporters of Romney as racists then THCB might have just squandered any intellectual capital it has established to date.