What Romney can learn from Obama's Mt. Rushmore dreams: Character Sketch

A few intriguing clues can be found in the latest installment of the Politico e-book chronicle of the presidential campaign, " Playbook 2012: Inside the Circus--Romney, Santorum and the GOP Race ." (The first, " Playbook 2012: The Right Fights Back," was released in December.) In writing a campaign history on the fly, Mike Allen and Evan Thomas are deeply beholden to anonymous campaign staffers, whose often self-serving blind quotes power the narrative. That caveat does not invalidate the reporting of "Inside the Circus," but it does explain my tentativeness in deriving ironclad conclusions from the Politico e-book.

In planning a second run for the White House, Romney's top advisers were obsessed with erasing the candidate's flip-flopper image. So with an emphasis on "authenticity" (a favored buzz word of handlers who specialize in concocting images), Romney was advised, "to embrace his wealth as a measure of success," Allen and Thomas write. "Romney, who is by and large surrounded by other rich people, was told that he should not pretend to be anything other than what he was."

The problem, now that Romney's main adversary is Obama, is that this I-am-rich-hear-me-roar strategy fuels Democratic populist appeals. Even worse politically (and this may reflect the candidate's natural awkwardness rather than the schemes of his strategists) is Romney's inability to connect with voters whose incomes are below McMansion levels. An emblematic moment in the Romney campaign came when the candidate flew to Florida two days before the Michigan primary in order to attend the Daytona 500. But when asked in the inevitable sports interview about how closely he follows auto racing, Romney replied honestly, "Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans, but I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners."

That answer deserves to be parsed. In a single sentence, Romney implied that his side-trip to Florida was a political stunt since he does not follow racing "closely" and underscored that his social set is made up of wealthy team owners. It is hard to do that kind of two-part political damage with just 20 words.

The co-authors of Inside the Circus flick at a problem that seems to afflict all presidential candidates who lack the common touch: "Romney had become overprogrammed." Allen and Thomas quote the inevitable nameless Romney insider who says shrewdly, "In his head has been put this heuristic--'I've got to parse everything because people are worried.' And so, when you do that, you don't talk right, because you're thinking about every word."

All this is reminiscent of a recent Democratic presidential nominee. No, not John Kerry, who may share Romney stiffness and wealth, but never had to prove his liberalism to his party's base. The closest analogue to Romney is actually (brace yourself, Republicans) Al Gore. During the 2000 campaign, the spontaneity-challenged Gore told admaker Carter Eskew that he constantly felt like a character in the Spike Jonze movie, Being John Malkovich with "all those voices in my head telling me what to do."

That is why--despite the long slog until November--the best preparation for being president is probably running for president. For if Mitt Romney cannot get the voices of his handlers out of his head while he is still a candidate, he will probably be equally afflicted by sycophants and true believers if he gets to the Oval Office.

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