“I’m not familiar precisely with what I said, but I’ll stand by what I said, whatever it was”.
So said Mitt Romney this week. He had been asked if he stood by his view, given a few months ago, that President Obama was trying to make America a less Christian country.
The substance of the question is not all that interesting. It is Romney’s answer that is more telling. Admittedly, he has been asked many questions in interviews over the past months and can’t be expected to remember every word he has uttered. But the naivety of his answer is striking, and led me to wonder: is Mitt Romney political enough for politics?
The thrust of the strategy behind Romney’s campaign for the Republican nomination has been to emphasise his business background in an attempt to position him as far as possible from Washington D.C. (and the politicians there who attract such public derision) and to brand him as the only candidate capable of solving the country’s economic problems. His four years as Governor of Massachusetts, a politically liberal state, and his failed attempt to win the Republican nomination in 2008 is the limit of his political experience.
In the UK, commentators often condemn the lack of ‘real’ life experience by our politicians. Some believe that without an understanding of the world outside politics, you cannot truly understand and empathise with the concerns and struggles of the people you represent.
Prime Minister David Cameron and Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband are both professional politicians who served their time as special advisors in Government. Others, such as former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, climbed their way up the Westminster pole after serving time as union officials. The other famous Johnson – Boris – was a journalist prior to becoming an MP. None of them would have answered such a question so clumsily.
But it is not just about being ready with a slick answer to a tricky question. It is having the ability to think on your feet when under pressure, and successfully persuade your audience of your convictions, if not your policies. Romney, after his years as a successful management consultation, should be skilled in this art. But he is clearly not. His off-the-cuff remarks are a gift to bumper-sticker writers everywhere.
Linked to his less than impressive political skills is his privileged upbringing and personal wealth. Politics in America is an expensive business; in 2008, Romney contributed $44 million of his own money towards his failed presidential bid. He’s rich, so what? But he is defensive of his background and affluence; his “I won’t apologise for being successful” mantra is at odds with accusations from Democrats that his money actually came from the result of closing businesses down.
Romney’s wealth has led to accusations of being out of touch with ordinary people, a charge often leveled at David Cameron; neither men are tribal politicians, and the aspirations of both to ascend to the top rung of politics seem more the result of ticking off a bucket-list than a burning desire to change things for the better.
Romney can’t win; any advantage he takes from his ‘real’ life outside politics is cancelled out by his wealth. And just for fun, here are a few examples of his ill-judged comments:
- On the poor: “I‘m not concerned about the very poor.”
- On being able to choose health care providers: “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”
- On unemployment: “I know what it’s like to worry about whether or not you are going to get fired. There are times when I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.”
- In a television debate, Romney tried to bet Rick Perry $10,000 to prove he was wrong about his health care position: “Rick, I’ll tell you what. Ten thousand bucks? Ten thousand dollar bet?”
- On the housing crisis: “Don’t try and stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom.”
It seems to me that Romney is rather scared of his audience outside the boardroom. His nervous, faltering performances in interviews do not inspire confidence, which is presumably why his team limit his exposure to direct media questioning. He may be the presumptive nominee, but this says more about the quality of his fellow candidates. If he is to win the race for the White House, he needs to up his game, button his clumsy lip and be more political.
Watch and learn, Mitt, watch and learn.
ps. no swearing in this post! My mum will be proud.