Mitt Romney: Zero Uplift Man
Until last night, I hadn't seen one of Mitt Romney's election-night speeches at full length. What struck me about it -- and I gather it's just his standard speech -- is that it's completely devoid of uplift. The anger at Obama seems sincere, possibly because Obama genuinely annoys him, possibly because annoyance is Romney's natural mode. Then, at the very end, the effort at an extended bit of patriotic inspiration comes off as too short and utterly pro forma. Overall, the speech is pure sourness, which isn't going to work in a country that always wants its presidents, not just the current one, to offer hope.
One reason for Romney's approach, of course, is that he's playing to crowds that don't particularly love America (it's too full of people who dare to disagree with them). Liberals are much more likely to dream of an idealized America than modern right-wingers; instead, right-wingers dream almost exclusively of vengeance against their enemies. So, midway through the speech, when Romney tries to slip an uplift line into a series of Obama attacks -- "We want to restore America to the founding principles that made this country great" -- he says it as if he means to add at the end, and we want to do that just to piss Barack Obama off! Watch it, starting at about 4:59:
I'm sure the plan is to switch Romney's tone around convention time, with a soft-focus thousand-points-of-light speech a la Poppy Bush in '88. But there was a part of Poppy Bush's soul that genuinely did have a sentimental love for America, and I think that's true of every post-Nixon president we've elected. I'm not sure it's true of Romney. He can recite the lyrics to "America the Beautiful" all he wants, but I'm not sure he can find any sincere cornball feelings about America in his end-of-the-nation-state financier soul.
On a somewhat related note, Frank Bruni writes today that Romney should embrace his Mormonism on the campaign trail, because that would humanize him. Bruni cites a recent biography of Romney:
To read "The Real Romney" ... is to realize the utter centrality of religion in his life. One of the book's most arresting passages describes a moment when Ann, his wife-to-be and then a Protestant, asks him what Mormons believe. His detailed explanation moves her to tears, perhaps because it's so heartfelt, perhaps also because he's so nervous about her reaction....
"His church experience is, I think, one of the great humanizing influences in Mitt Romney's life," said Patrick Mason, a professor of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University. Mason noted that if Romney would embrace that side of himself, he could beat the rap that he’s never been exposed to hardship by recounting his missionary experience. "That's usually a very spartan lifestyle, and by definition most of the people you're talking to are going to be poor."
Romney's even longer period as a Mormon lay leader in Boston involved counseling and consoling people dealing with marriage problems, addiction, unemployment: some of life's messiest, scariest stuff. He must have gained a fluency in human frailty. But when The Times's Sheryl Gay Stolberg was researching an article about that time, Romney predictably declined her interview request.
But I'm not sure he wants to humanize himself. Obviously, he'd be less cautious about discussing this kind of thing if he'd grown up as an evangelical Protestant -- but I think in that case he'd use his religion as a stick to beat us secular humanists with, the way most modern Republicans do. I don't think any modern Republican wants to seem vulnerable. The point isn't to show empathy, or a sense of unity with all of one's fellow Americans -- it's to show tribal solidarity and disgust for the "others." It's to define and blame the enemy.
I don't think this is going to work for him in the fall. To win, he's going to have to change his tone -- he's going have to emphasize hope and uplift, and seem at least semi-sincere doing it. I'm not sure he's capable of doing that. And given the party he operates in, I'm not sure he'll ever realize he should try.