We know a lot of silly things about Mitt Romney, but we aren’t learning a great deal about what he might be like if he became president of the United States. This is normal and it is dangerous. In the heave and fro of a presidential campaign, it always seems that the attention of the national media is on trivial matters. The big flap of the moment is one way to describe it. Something comes up, it is a big controversy (for about ten minutes), it spreads through the campaign media, makes the evening news and some variation makes the headlines the next morning. In a day, or at the most two or three, it is quickly forgotten as the next controversy takes over.
We know, for example that Romney (his actual first name is Williard, by the way) once put the family dog on top of their car and drove to Canada. We know the dog “got sick” up there and when the results of diarrhea spread over the windows of the car announcing the dog’s illness, Mitt stopped the car and washed it down. Presumably, the trip resumed, the dog still up there.
We know that Romney seems to find no other frame of reference except that of a rich guy. This actually has some importance, because it indicates that he has trouble not only relating to “ordinary citizens”, but also has difficulty finding the right words to say and then saying them at public events. This is not a good habit in a president, to say the least.
What else? Well, we know he tries to shave off his past positions and then contort them into something that would satisfy the far right and the tea party Republicans. This, too, has some importance, but the difference with Romney is mainly a matter of degree. Romney is stuck just right of center when everyone believes his part is tilting far right. All politicians tack and swerve, trying to catch the right mood of the voters that will propel them into power. Romney is not nearly as good at it as others and he is running in a year when the far right wing appears to have taken over his party. He is, in short, not the candidate for this moment in American politics, but the others have, so far, failed to match him in getting votes.
Two of the most important things about Romney have not made much news. First, there was a story much earlier in this campaign about his personal spending habits. It seems the very rich guy is also a very cheap guy. He doesn’t like to spend money, ever. The only case where reporters have been able to identify him as being more free with his dough is on gifts for his wife and the purchase of multiple residences for himself and the family (having three, four, five or even more houses is the accepted reality for the rich in America these days, in case the news slipped by. During the 2008 election cycle it was finally determined that John McCain and his wife had eight houses).
Is this important information? You bet it is. It suggests that Romney has some sort of mental hang up about money, that he has unresolved “issues” (as the saying goes) in regard to the benefit and use of money. Tightwads, as they once were called, have a tendency to cheap everything out in regard to what others want and need and then spend like crazy on something they want or think they need. As president, Romney would have a major role in deciding how the money collected from the American people would be spent. Could he handle that function rationally, as an executive, not as a personal matter? Jimmy Carter, who was in office four years from ‘76 through ‘80, as another president who took his role as spender-in-chief very personally and his aides and cabinet members reported he wasted hours and hour on ordinary budget problems in various places around the government, hoping to save a few hundred thousand dollars here and there (nothing, in other words, in relation to the federal government’s spending).
The book Game Change about the 2008 campaign also says that Romney was known as a man who couldn’t make a decision when he was governor of Massachusetts for four years. The authors wrote about constant vacillation and calling in second, third and fourth opinions, trying to either get it right or put off the need to make a choice. Again, this is troublesome information when projected on to a potential president.
Why don’t we hear or read more about these kinds of facts? For one thing, they aren’t sexy. For another, there’s the “ho hum” factor: people read something like that and they don’t much care. The story about the dog on the roof of the car is are more interesting, isn’t it? We are not, in an important sense, actually engaged in picking a potential president right now. We are engaged in finding someone who can get the Republican nomination and excite the right and far right wings of the party.
Do most of the people active in the primary process care about the serious business that a president has to handle? Maybe. The presidency has become so deeply enter twined with our personal cultural views that maybe it doesn’t matter to most if the person can actually handle the job. We elect symbols to be president, not necessarily the person. Obama was a grand symbol of the need of America to move beyond racism and beyond the Bush years. Face it, the whole process is not unlike electing a class or school president: people pick someone who looks good and seems to deserve the honor and then we all forget about it and go about our business, knowing that disappointment and even disaster are likely to follow. (Of course, there were millions disappointed with Obama before he ever did a single thing as president. He was not the symbol they wanted, it seems.)
All of the Republican candidates for president this year were so deeply flawed that they wouldn’t have gotten passed a 11 member screening committee, at least in terms of what were once considered the historic markers for a potential president. Only Perry of Texas showed significant time in an executive office, experience in a legislative body and the ability to get reelected after having made major mistakes, but, as we all know, Perry flamed out spectacularly. What he lacked was the ability to handle campaigning, especially the debates, and any knowledge of the rest of the country outside of Texas.
Romney would not likely have been reelected as governor of Massachusetts had he run. Santorum was turned out in 2006 by the voters of Pennsylvania who gave 17% points to his opponent, a landslide. Gingrich was ejected as Speaker of the House by his own members, a small group of whom said they would vote to elect a Democrat as Speaker if he did not step aside. This has been a most unusual year.
We should care about the character and the leadership abilities of people who want to be president. In fact, we should all be prepared to vote against a candidate who otherwise might be our choice if we learn that person is not fit for the job. By this, I don’t mean the partisan standard that says Obama was never fit to even be considered. That many see elections purely thorough that telescope is a given. What I mean is that we should consider the objective facts, something that many of us are unwilling to do, but, thankfully, some independent minded voters do on behalf of all of us, probably saving all of us from disaster from time to time.
Doug Terry, 3.17.12