The Man with Three Houses and No Home

Josh Fischel contemplates the curious case of Mitt Romney, a candidate many support but few really like.


Obama supporters have started to let it show again. There was the full-throated audience in Charlotte that zealously sang out its support for three straight nights. There was the pizza guy in Florida who bear hugged the President.

One gets the sense that if Mitt Romney met a similarly enthusiastic supporter, his reaction would be to shout, “Unhand me, citizen!”

If Romney wins the presidential election, where will they hold the party that night? His headquarters are in the North End in Boston, but I can’t help but think it will seem a little odd to try and amass a large rally somewhere in a city that will have voted overwhelmingly against him, or elsewhere in a state that will surely have done the same. Even Romney’s hometown, Belmont, went for Obama over McCain in 2008 by more than a 2:1 margin.

I have a friend who has a significant role in the Romney campaign, and when I had him over for dinner a few months ago, it took him most of the meal to reveal his employer to me. When your campaign staff won’t even tell friends in the same city where your headquarters are where they work, you know the reception to your candidacy is maybe lukewarm at best.

A few more words on my friend, with whom I basically lost touch for several years, between high school graduation and now: he isn’t interested in relocating to Washington to participate in a Romney administration. He’s been there and prefers Boston. He also implied that he was glad to be participating in a race where there were two plenty likable candidates.

I thought that was a curious sentiment coming from a guy who also claimed credit for fanning the flames over the woman who dared accuse Ann Romney of never having worked. I asked him about the one thing I care about when I vote for president, really: given Romney’s shifting positions on a whole range of moral and social issues, what kind of Justice could I expect him to nominate to the Supreme Court?

“Oh, he’ll have to pick someone like Thomas or Scalia,” my friend said. “There won’t ever be mistakes with that stuff again.”

To me, this exchange amounted to proof that the people around Romney think he’s okay, but not transformational, and Romney is so oriented towards the attainment of personal goals that he’s willing to shrug and pivot his positions to whatever the people powerful enough to hand him the keys suggest he believe.

This is not a new criticism, but I have recently come to terms with how unlikable being “likable enough,” as in Obama’s famously icy description of Hillary, really is.

Of course I pried for what’s-he-like stories from my friend, and the example he shared seemed illustrative by being not at all illustrative. They were using someone’s house to film a campaign commercial, maybe during primary season, and there was some down time, so Romney cleaned and organized the garage, unsolicited — well, obviously unsolicited. Whether it was interpreted by the homeowner as nice or kind of obnoxious, it’s not a story about Romney getting to know people any better or really endearing himself to anyone in particular. I don’t know anything more about him from this, beyond that he is perhaps fastidious.

Back to the search for a party spot. Maybe Michigan, Romney’s ancestral home, where he first learned about politics and haircuts? He hasn’t led in a single head-to-head poll against Obama there since the beginning of 2012.

He’s in the same boat — consistently down in the polls — in New Hampshire, his longtime summer spot. He did start his campaign there, but would he find enough people to gather near his vacation mansion on Lake Winnepesauke?

He can’t go to Utah, because he won’t want to be perceived as beholden to the Mormon Church.

This matters, at least in terms of optics. Since the dawn of the television age, no presidential candidate has had nowhere to go on election night. Every loser from Nixon to McCain conceded somewhere familiar — either in Washington or their home state. Every winner has embraced it on similarly common turf. How awkward to finally acquire your grail and have nowhere in particular to turn for an enthusiastic crowd.

Fortune does not favor a ticket that can’t win where they’re best known. The last time a presidential ticket lost both candidates’ home states was 1956: the dream team of Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver. (They lost 41 other states, too, on their way to getting trampled by Eisenhower and Nixon.) The last time a presidential ticket lost both candidates’ home states and still won was 1916: Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Marshall, of course.

Romney doesn’t engender a lot of joy among his supporters because they don’t seem to support him. They seem to dislike Obama and the government boogeyman that hides in their paycheck and steals money from it. They like what the Republican party has come to stand for, and if Romney can deliver that platform, great. But they can take or leave the man. There are no bear hugs for him.

Maybe this is because Romney portrays himself as the man in the corner office with the outsize net worth, the founder of an asset management firm — a company whose chief goal is to maximize profit. People don’t tend to believe that you’re truly approachable when you remind them of your boss’s boss’s boss.

In response to a question on this past week’s Meet the Press about whether he would be satisfied with a one-term presidency in which he made tough but unpopular decisions, Mitt Romney said, “David, I could not care less about my political prospects.” This from a man who has been running for president for six years, whose father served as governor and was himself a presidential candidate, who challenged Ted Kennedy for the Senate in 1994, and who served a single term as Governor of Massachusetts before realizing that his prospects of getting re-elected were dim. For him to say that he couldn’t care less about his political prospects rings unbelievably false.

Romney is the kid who gets the lead in the school play after hiring an acting coach the other students couldn’t afford, who jumps around in the hallway when the cast list is posted, and then can’t understand why no one else is as excited for him as he is. His monetary advantage, which would only grow with incumbency and the continued legality of Super PACs, would make it prohibitive for anyone to be able to challenge him in 2016 should he win this November. But, as the Beatles say, money can’t buy you love; it can only super-saturate media markets in swing states with negative ads.

What does this foretell for future presidential candidates who come from means, who did not have the opportunity to experience hardship, particular pain, or war? In college, I wrote a paper comparing and contrasting A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the Dave Eggers memoir, and And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, about the exploitation of Mexican farm workers. If I remember correctly, my thesis was that these books made me crave the sorrow experienced within. “Let me be struck by lightning, so I can tell you what it feels like.” I probably wrote something like that; my professor responded with a C-, and a line I have never forgotten: “The smugness of privilege is never becoming; may you move beyond it.”

While Romney does not appear to lose sleep over not having shared experiences with the common man, if he loses, it will behoove similarly well-heeled candidates to do something that allows them to move beyond the smugness of their own privilege. Other scions of well-to-do families seem to be thinking about how to frame their ambitions within the context of their wealth and blessings better than Romney has managed to do thus far. Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York and son of Mario Cuomo, former Governor of New York, has never struggled personally, but he chaired the New York City Homeless Commission and founded Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged (HELP), which aims to help the homeless become more self-reliant. Joseph Kennedy III, RFK’s grandson, captained the lacrosse team at Stanford and graduated from Harvard Law, but then he spent two years in the Dominican Republic as part of the Peace Corps. Bob Corker, the wealthiest Republican in the Senate—though he does not have any familial predecessors in government and seems to harbor few aspirations beyond his current seat—touts his teenage jobs picking up trash and bagging ice before starting his own construction company; he helped create the Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, which helps families find housing and maintain it.

Helping Salt Lake City and the IOC overcome a bribery scandal to make the 2002 Winter Olympics run smoothly was a notable feat, but it was not the same thing as the genuine narratives that the aforementioned pols have. It didn’t allow Romney to connect with the hungry, the struggling, the uneducated, or the unhealthy. And if he wins, the gathered supporters — wherever they may be — will likely not include the people who need a compassionate president the most.

Photo by davelawrence8

Josh Fischel lives near Boston with his wife and their dog. He teaches sixth grade humanities, and has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Bean Soup.