Mitt Romney's biggest problem is... Mitt Romney

The Republican's whiny "I'm rubber you're glue" attitude to Obama will alienate American voters.

Republican Mitt Romney decided long ago that the only thing he was going to focus on this campaign was the economy. 

Not gay marriage. Not immigration. Not gun rights. Not anything but the economy and how the president botched it.  

He'd present himself, as he did when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, as Mr Fix-It while his deep-pocketed confreres spent beaucoup bucks attacking from the rear.

The idea was that the election is a referendum on Barack Obama's first term, but in focusing exclusively on the economy, Romney forget something: to define himself.

Most candidates for president tell a story about themselves that connects with Americans emotionally and intimately. Beyond policy, image, mud-slinging and ideology, candidates hope to craft narratives that make them feel real.

But unlike George W. Bush's story of redemption and Obama's story of audacious hope, Romney's story inspires little affection. In fact, his story might inspire the opposite of affection, and that may be what Romney fears most.

  • He's the son of a wealthy businessman and statesman who attended elite universities before founding a Wall Street firm that made millions for shareholders while sending thousands of American jobs overseas.
  • He's an influential member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), an arcane religious sect that, unfairly or not, most Americans really don't understand, and neither do some former Mormons.
  • He lives in the shadow of his legendary father. George Romney was the head of the innovative car company (AMC), a firm that made things, as opposed to a private-equity firm like Mitt's Bain Capital that makes nothing. He was also a progressive Republican who fought for civil rights and even contravened his own party to achieve equal opportunity while Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Nixon.
  • And Romney the son is the former (centrist) governor of the only state to initiate universal health care. That would be something to crow loudly about if Romney were a Democrat or if this were 2008. But in 2012, the Republicans' conservative faction has disqualified the fact that he set the example for the biggest domestic policy program of 21st-century America.

So Romney doesn't talk about himself.

That means opportunity, and Obama has taken it.

In a series of attack ads, the Obama campaign has portrayed Romney as a corporate raider who dismantled companies, sent jobs to Mexico and China, and pocketed millions. The president has, as Lou Dubose of the Washington Spectator put it, taken a page from the Karl Rove playbook. 

The former Bush advisor was famous for taking an opponent's greatest asset — in this case, Romney's background as a big-time business leader — and turning it into his greatest liability. Rove did just that when he "Swiftboated" Vietnam War hero John Kerry. The difference, as Dubose sees it (and I agree), is that while Rove's attacks were based on misinformation, conspiracies and fabulist reveries, Obama's attacks are distinguished for their being grounded in fact. 

Indeed, Romney has tried to create the impression that Obama is lying about his tenure at Bain Capital, but with rare exception, everything the Obama campaign has said about Romney has come from independent news reports.

Obama is also taking advantage of a tic unique to Romney. Talking Points Memo dubbed it the "Rubber/Glue" method. Here's how it works. The president calls Romney an "pioneer" in outsourcing (true, according to the Washington Post). Then Romney returns volley, saying: "I'm rubber you're glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!" He adds that the president is the "Outsourcer-in-Chief." 

I wish I were kidding. The more Romney does this, the whinier he appears. Americans don't like whiners. Especially rich ones.

So Romney's main problem may be Romney. If he talks about himself, he risks losing votes. If he doesn't talk about himself, he risks losing votes. It's Mitt's Catch-22.

If Romney can make this election look like a referendum, he has a chance to win it. If he doesn't, and instead Obama dominates the campaign narrative, then he's sunk. 

Even House Speaker John Boehner knows this. 

The American people probably aren’t going to fall in love with Mitt Romney. I’ll tell you this: 95 percent of the people that show up to vote in November … are going to vote for or against Barack Obama. … Mitt Romney has some friends, relatives and fellow Mormons … some people that are going  to vote for him...

 

Mitt Romney's fractured reflection. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.