Why Mitt Romney Is In The Worst Of Two Worlds
Perhaps you’ve noticed: Mitt Romney is rich.
Really rich. By some estimates, he’s worth as much as $200 million. He brought in a cool $20.9 million last year.
So it’s no surprise that Romney thinks and acts like a rich guy. And his rich guy persona keeps slipping out, seemingly accidentally, since each slip takes his campaign “severely” off message. He tells audiences that he “likes being able to fire people,” informs interviewers that he’s “not concerned about the very poor,” casually makes $10,000 bets, dismisses his $374,000 in speaking fee income as “not very much,” brags about putting his political opponents into debt, claims that while he’s not an ardent NASCAR fan he has “some friends who are NASCAR team owners,” and stays in the ritziest hotels while on the campaign trail.
I know, it sounds like I‘m begrudging Mr. Romney his success. I’m not. He figured out a legal way to make a lot of money, went after it, and succeeded.
But his condescending attempts to present himself as a “man of the people” have bordered on pathetic. He recently told one audience that, “there were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip,” and told another, “I’m also unemployed.” He claimed that he lives on the “real streets of America” (many real streets, actually, each with a multi-million dollar home). And he tried to establish his “Buy American” bona fides last week by saying that his wife Ann “drives a couple of Cadillacs.”
As a result, Mr. Romney finds himself in the worst of two worlds. On one hand, he’s a rich guy whose privileged life keeps slipping out through obliviously tone-deaf gaffes. On the other hand, he’s pretending to be a populist who personally relates to the financial struggles of ordinary Americans.
I understand why Mr. Romney’s advisers didn’t want him to run as a “rich guy” candidate. With income inequality at record-high levels and Romney’s image as a corporate raider, his wealth could easily be viewed as a campaign-killing liability. But Mr. Romney’s chronic gaffes have rendered that strategy impossible. It’s time for Romney to start running as the person he really is: a rich guy.
“Rich guy” candidates often win. Jon Corzine served as both Senator and Governor from New Jersey, and Michael Bloomberg is serving his third term as New York City mayor. And although he didn’t win, billionaire Ross Perot led the polls during his 1992 presidential run. But all three candidates used their wealth as a positive talking point, convincing voters that their wealth allowed them to serve without being compromised. Mr. Romney hasn’t sold himself on a similar promise.
Instead of hiding from his wealth, Mr. Romney should start explaining why his wealth will help the American people. His accumulation of wealth has exposed for him both the opportunities that the system affords ordinary Americans, as well as the abusive loopholes that should be closed. That knowledge, deployed properly, could be of great value to the American people.
Since the beginning of the 24/7 media age in 1980, there have been eight general elections. The candidate who has been perceived as being the most comfortable in his own skin has won all eight. Mr. Romney should stop presenting himself as what he thinks the public wants to see from him, and should start being himself. That means we’d see an unabashed rich guy. And as long as he sells that as a positive, it would be a step in the right direction for his campaign.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
If Romney wants my vote, he should think it insignificant and pay off my student loads. That would significantly begin to reduce the income gap between one American and another.
I’m a little cynical right now, and mad as hell.
The problem is not Mitt Romney’s wealth or that he acts like a rich guy or even his false populism. As you pointed out, Bloomberg has gotten elected mayor in NYC in spite of (or perhaps because of) his wealth. The problem is that Mitt Romney does not know how to connect with people, that is, he lacks people skills. His tone-deafness is a symptom of this inability to “be real.” This is why no one is warming to him. Santorum, who is fairly wealthy by average American standards, does seem to be able to talk to and connect with people.
Thanks for your comment. I agree with you, and I don’t think our two positions are inconsistent with one another. I agree that he lacks the ability to relate – and I’d argue that pretending to be an “ordinary guy” when he’s not one is reinforcing that problem. Therefore, I believe he would do himself a favor by fully being himself, even if that’s the “distant rich guy, since it’s better than putting on a false artifice that many voters aren’t buying.
Brad, thank you so much for anticipating what was on my mind and writing this post. Similar to you, I think that Mr. Romney should embrace his wealth, but I appreciate the historical context for how this strategy can be successful. What is making voters uneasy is that he remains an enigma – you know him, without really knowing him. The question remains though, is it too late for him to change tack? Will it be perceived by the media as a desperate move if he starts using his wealth as a positive talking point now? What are your thoughts on making that transition without drawing criticism?
Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad I anticipated what you were thinking!
I agree with you that making a transition to a new talking point can look jarring – but it’s only February, and it will be long forgotten by the time this campaign moves to the general election. For historical perspective, think of President Obama, who ran (in part) on a message of accepting federal matching funds for his general election instead of accepting much larger donations outside of the system. That worked fine, until he flipped his position and decided to accept much larger donations outside of the federal system. The story hurt for a few days, but the issue largely went away. I suspect the same would happen if Mr. Romney changed tack now.
That’s why I tell my clients that authenticity is the key rule of successful public speaking. You can’t hide from who you are. He needs to own it, address the white (fur-lined) elephant in the room and convince voters he’s the right guy for the job anyway.
“His accumulation of wealth has exposed for him both the opportunities that the system affords ordinary Americans, as well as the abusive loopholes that should be closed.”
Problem with that is, neither Willard “Mitt” Romney nor the Republican Party as a whole want to close the abusive loopholes.
They’ve worked hard to label ANY loophole closing as a “tax hike.” Frank Luntz told the party to start referring to taxes as government “taking” from the people. Attempts to make the system fairer or address growing inequality are denounced as “class warfare” against our embattled “job creators.”
And don’t get me started on Grover Norquist and the pledge he coerced most every Republican to sign.
[…] Brad Phillips: “Mr. Romney finds himself in the worst of two worlds. On one hand, he’s a rich guy whose privileged life keeps slipping out through obliviously tone-deaf gaffes. On the other hand, he’s pretending to be a populist who personally relates to the financial struggles of ordinary Americans.” […]
And the hits keep coming! From New York Times 27 Feb. 2012: “But the crowd initially booed Mr. Romney, who occasionally struck a discordant note, as when he approached a group of fans wearing plastic ponchos. “I like those fancy raincoats you bought,” he said. “Really sprung for the big bucks.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.”