Question from the audience:
I know you won’t vote for him, but what do you think of Mitt Romney as a person?
Well, of course, I don’t know him as a person. I know him as a construct of everything I’ve ever read about him, both positive and negative. I think my first real awareness of him came when he was Governor of Massachusetts, and the opinion I held of him at the time had its positive bits (regarding the universal healthcare he helped to institute in the commonwealth) and negative ones (his opposition to same sex marriage). Basically at the time he struck me as a standard-issue northeastern Republican, which is to say somewhat more moderate than his party as a whole.
As a matter of his personal politics, I don’t think he’s actually changed much from that, and that’s his problem. He’s a bad fit for the current GOP, with its scorched-earth policies regarding anyone who is not 100% in line with its social and political agenda, and his enthusiasm for this particular brand of nonsense is palpably muted. It seems to me that Romney isn’t an ideologue, he’s an administrator: he believes what he believes, to be sure, but I think one of the things he does actually believe in is working for the greater good. I think left to his own devices, he’d rather do something that works, than something’s that 100% politically pure. But as noted before, it’s a bad time for a GOP politician to have that as part of his political makeup.
I have rather less of a bead on Romney as a human being away from the political arena. What does come across to me is this: A man who was born to privilege, and who understands intellectually and agrees with the idea that with privilege comes a responsibility to others, but who does not necessarily understand the problems of those with less privilege on a visceral or personal level, and who is not comfortable with the idea of either having or feigning such an interest. This does not in the least make him a bad person; it makes him an insulated one, who appears to have a very sharp event horizon when it comes to personal relationships. I do not doubt one bit that he is a kind and good person to family and friends; I also believe that out beyond the personal frontier, the problems and concerns of others grow abstract very quickly. This last bit doesn’t make him substantially different from most people.
What does make him different is all that money he has, and the fact that his own sphere of struggle has never centered on its lack, or even the possibility of such a thing. This is a thing that is alien to most Americans. Some of us have been poor, some or much of our lives; most of us know someone in our family or circle of friends who has fallen on hard times, often through no fault of their own; most of us know, in a scary way we don’t like to think about, that we’re a couple of lost paychecks away from real trouble. Americans aspire to be rich, but because they’re not, they’re also sensitive to when those with wealth show obvious disconnects from the reality of their lives. Romney, unfortunately for him, presents all sorts of these disconnects in a public fashion.
Again, it doesn’t mean he’s a bad person, or that in a general sense being wealthy leads to personal failing or political insularity. There’s a fine line in the film Gladiator, in which the Roman senator Gracchus, played by Derek Jacobi, says “I don’t pretend to be a man of the people, but I do try to be a man for the people.” The United States has had its share of presidents who were for the people rather than of them: Both Roosevelts and John Kennedy fit into that mold, for example. I think Romney, through personal temperament and through his personal and religious upbringing, probably very well fits the mold of being for the people. I also think generally speaking, being for the people is more than sufficient, since I tend to judge people with civic inclinations for their actions more than I judge them for their personalities. I’d rather have a politician who does good than means well, in other words.
Romney would never be a perfect fit for me as a politician, but I don’t discount the idea that he desires to do good, and that I suspect in the end he’s not frothing ideologue. In another political time — heck, if it were 2000 and the current Mitt Romney were on the ballot rather than George W. Bush — I wouldn’t likely have voted for him, but I would have been sanguine about a candidate with the experience he has sitting in the White House. I expect in that era he could have run a campaign that lent itself better to his strengths.
2012 is a different era, however, and the GOP is different from what it was even a dozen years ago, and Romney is in himself ill-suited for his party and his time. Romney benefited from the fact that the GOP presidential field this year was manifestly the worst of any in recent memory, but it’s the last break he caught. It’s clear the GOP rank and file does not love him, it’s clear that political independents have not taken to him, and it’s clear that at the moment he’s not doing a very good job competing in an election year he could have been a solid contender. A week short of eight years ago I said here that if John Kerry could not win the presidency, he should be beaten to death with his own shoes; I have no doubt that there are folks who feel the same way about Romney.
Romney deserves the blame if he loses, but I don’t think he will deserve all the blame. At the end of it all, Romney is a reasonably decent man who could have been a reasonably decent president if it wasn’t 2012 and he was dealt the set of circumstances that he has been, i.e., a political party of ideologues who prize purity over practicality. It was Romney’s fault for, in my opinion, choosing to embrace their notions of purity over his own notions of practicality. It’s the GOP’s fault for making him have to do so. As in the end I judge people with civic inclinations for their actions more than their personalities, what I think of Mitt Romney as a person matters less than what he’s promised to do should he be elected, and to whom he’s beholden once he has been.