Sunday, November 25, 2007
Is Romney’s Business Background A Blessing Or A Curse?
Mitt Romney’s road to the White House looks like one of those roads most of us have traveled at one time or another. It starts out straight, paved and comfortable but later degenerates into sharp turns, untenable sand and jarring washboards. Quite often one either ends up in the ditch or concedes defeat and turns tail for home.
Fortunately for Romney, a better road is available. But to find it, he needs to accomplish two objectives. First, he must convince social conservatives his flip-flop on abortion is sincere and complete. And, second, he must gracefully illuminate the religious intolerance of those who disparage his Mormon faith. Unfortunately for Romney—perhaps especially for Romney—it might be a very difficult challenge.
It’s often true that our greatest strengths are also are greatest weaknesses. And so it is with Romney. His admirable record of accomplishment in the business world was enabled by the application of analytical skills and business acumen he acquired as a consultant and executive of Bain Consulting and later Bain Capital.
But something else Romney acquired from Bain—dispassionate detachment—makes for a rough campaign road. Anyone who has worked with consultancies and investors like Bain would likely acknowledge they are hired primarily for their minds, analytical skills and access to capital—not their hearts.
Don’t get me wrong. They aren’t heartless. It’s just that the job requires them to keep their hearts in check so tough business decisions—even painful layoffs—are considered.
Dispassionate detachment is necessary in the consulting and investment worlds, but it can be a fatal liability in the political world. In fact, the opposite approach —passionate authenticity—is often more attractive to voters.
There are many examples of this phenomenon, but Ronald Reagan is probably the best case in point. Many voters disliked some of what Reagan stood for but voted for him anyway because they liked the fact that he actually stood for something. They believed Reagan not only because of what he said and did, but also because of how he said it. To many it seemed Reagan’s heart, mind, words and actions were all in-sync.
For example, when Reagan was angry—like the time he scuttled an attempt to shut off a debate microphone because he “paid for this microphone!”—most viewers felt his anger. Or when he grieved—as in delivering the eulogy for those who perished in the unfortunate explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger—most viewers felt his grief.
The list of authentic Reagan moments could go on and on. Opponents claimed it was good acting. Voters overwhelmingly decided it was authenticity.
That’s the kind of connection Romney needs to make with voters. If he isn’t able to authentically communicate genuine remorse for his previous support of abortion rights and rock-solid conviction to his pro-life conversion he won’t overcome the fear of pandering on abortion. His oft delivered dispassionate statement that other pro-life Republicans reversed field on abortion is true but unconvincing.
Likewise, when his Mormon faith is questioned, it isn’t enough to stoically deflect the subject. I think most Americans expect that Romney should be deeply disappointed by such religious intolerance and even angered by those who characterize a substantial and legitimate Christian denomination as an unworthy non-Christian cult. An expression of true disappointment and anger from Romney would clearly be in order and would do much to turn the tables on those who denigrate his faith.
Is Romney capable of making that kind of connection with voters? Only Romney can answer that question. But if he can’t make the transformation from talking about Reagan to talking like Reagan his campaign could end up conceding defeat to a rough road and turning tail for home.