By the time Mitt Romney remarked last weekend that some of his friends owned NASCAR teams, he seemed like a good candidate for compulsory enrollment in one of those walk-a-mile-in-my-shoes experiments that politicians occasionally undertake to experience how the other 99 percent live. A week on food stamps, driving a worn-out old car; he doesn’t get to fire anybody, and maybe someone tries to fire him.
Romney’s recurring campaign-trail reminders of his world—the cars, the houses, the status, the power, the salary-sized bets, the accounts in overseas banks—have lately brought to mind a variation on an old Ladies’ Home Journal feature: Can This Marriage Be Saved? Instead, nervous Republicans are asking: Can this candidate be saved?
The short answer is yes. But, as in a troubled marriage, the solution may first require acknowledging the trouble spots. During the harshly competitive GOP primary process, the former Massachusetts governor has developed two problems that could haunt him in a general election: an image of ruthlessness as he and his allies have crushed one rival after another, and a series of moves to the right that could cloud his appeal to moderates. Add to that ongoing unforced errors that spotlight his life of success and privilege, and Romney is making it easy for Democrats to paint him as “The Man.” Heck, even Rick Santorum called him a bully the other day.
All of that doesn’t even get into the complications that Romney can’t control, such as an improving economy that threatens to undermine the central rationale of his Mr. Fix-It campaign. Yet, after surviving his Michigan scare this week, he remains the favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination. And, if he does, President Obama’s equivocal approval ratings virtually assure Romney a fighting chance in November.
Whether Romney will let himself be saved by anything other than the shortcomings of his competitors or a dip in the economy is another question. Most candidates, by the time they run for president, “are pretty locked in their ways,” points out veteran Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who should know after advising presidential contenders including Howard Dean and John Edwards. “They’re in their 50s or 60s,” he says. “It’s not like you’re going to change them” or neutralize their flaws.
Some of Romney’s problems can be remedied without personal transformation. For starters, no more events for 1,200 people at 65,000-seat arenas. More fundamentally damaging is Romney’s tendency to say all the wrong things about money. He is already having trouble attracting less-educated, lower-income voters. In a nation struggling to emerge from recession, with unemployment still high, the last thing he needs is to remind people of his wealth, estimated at up to $250 million. And yet, he can’t, or won’t, stop doing it.
“I just am who I am,” Romney has taken to saying lately. Translation: I’m rich and I’m tone deaf, so get over it and prepare to hear more about my wife’s Cadillacs, my rich CEO friends, my $10,000 bets, and the California beach house that I want to double (or is it quadruple?) in size after the election. And so, those Web videos of Romney gaffes compiled by Democrats and news organizations will probably continue to grow longer.
Veteran Democratic strategist Robert Shrum recalls John Kennedy saying he would apologize to Nikita Khrushchev about the U-2 incident, and Obama musing about “bitter” rural people “clinging” to guns and religion. “Everybody messes up, no matter how good they are,” he says. “But with Romney, this doesn’t seem to be an event. It seems to be an epidemic.” How could Romney do better? Even Shrum, who has spent his life trying to elect Democratic presidents, has some suggestions, including creating ads based on “real” moments gleaned from hours of talks with Romney.
As for the awkward wealth references, if Romney can’t stop making them, he could at least improve the way he handles the fallout. At least twice in recent days, Romney was asked about his comment that some of his “great friends” own NASCAR teams. In one instance, he simply ignored a question about whether it made him seem out of touch. In a second instance, asked if he understood that such remarks were hurting his campaign, Romney replied, “Yes. Next question.”
“Self-deprecation is always the preferred mechanism to handle anything like that,” says Republican consultant Brad Todd. Honesty and consistency are also useful. Formulate a disarming answer, the more genuine the better, and stick to it. One classic of the genre is George W. Bush’s oft-repeated comment on his misspent youth: “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” Bill Clinton came up with a response to his womanizing reputation—“I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage”—that served well enough for him to win the Democratic nomination and the White House.
Other candidates have embraced their biographies—Hollywood actor, small-town Georgia peanut farmer, biracial child with an unconventional upbringing—and explained why they are really just regular folks. Dan Schnur, who was the communications director for Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, says that the best idea is to own your problem—hang a lantern on it, as MSNBC host Chris Matthews wrote in his book Hardball.
Schnur is now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. His prescription for Romney goes like this: “Yes, I’ve been a successful businessman, and here’s why that can be a benefit for you. Occasionally I’m going to say things that sound awkward. Don’t mistake that for a lack of interest, a lack of caring, or a lack of commitment.”
It could actually help Romney to be more expansive on the subject of his wealth. The more he shows of himself and explains what motivates him, the less people may focus on his lapses into rich-guy-speak. At least he has not yet gone as far as George H.W. Bush, another awkward blueblood politician who once, as Schnur points out, said that he lost an Iowa straw poll because his supporters were “at their daughter’s coming-out party, or teeing up at the golf course in that all-important last round.”
Bush was roundly ridiculed for that and later for a painful moment in which he read aloud a stage direction in a speech. “Message: I care,” he told an audience. After five years of running for president, Romney is still straining to convey even that.
This article appears in the March 3, 2012, edition of National Journal.