What am I missing about this heartwarming Mitt Romney story?

Just when I thought I could quit Mitt Romney, the Boston Globe publishes a long analytical piece about his presidential campaign.  Most of it is standard stuff — his ground game was insufficient, the 47% remarks hurt him, his voter tracking app didn’t work on election day, he didn’t fight back against the Obama campaign’s early negative advertising . . .  But the main point the article makes is that his campaign may have made a mistake by not focusing on what a great guy Mitt Romney is.  One example the article cites is the time he helped a dying 14-year-old boy write his will:

Ann Romney, who had long pushed for more focus on her husband’s personal story, made her point directly in a convention video: “If you really want to know how a person will operate, look at how they’ve lived their life.” A Vermont couple ­appeared on the convention stage to tell the emotional story of how Romney, as a Mormon leader, helped their dying 14-year-old son, David Oparowski, write his will. “How many men do you know would take the time out of their busy lives to visit a terminally ill 14-year-old and help him settle his affairs?” Pat Oparowski, the boy’s mother, said in her speech.

So, am I missing something about Mormons, or about rich people, or what?  What kind of 14-year-old needs to “settle his affairs”?  What kind of affairs does he need to settle — who to bequeath his Xbox to?  And why does he need Mitt Romney to help him?  (To answer the mother’s question, I bet a ton of men would take the time to help a dying kid.)

There seems to be no question that Romney is personally a good and generous guy.  (On the other hand, he’s richer than God, so it’s not like his own family is going without basic necessities if he spreads his wealth around.)  But there is also just something kind of off about him.  I have a feeling that the more people got to know the real Mitt Romney, the less they would like him.  If this was the kind of story the campaign was being pushed to tell, I think they made the right decision to drop the heartwarming personal stuff and focus on lying about outsourcing Jeep production to China and whatnot.

OK, I’ll shut up now.

Random election thoughts

I voted in the high school gymnasium in my little town with my wife and son.  It was my son’s first presidential election.  Had to wait in line half an hour–the longest I’ve ever had to wait, I believe.  I approve of mail-in ballots and disapprove of multi-hour waits, but there is something very uplifting about waiting in line with your neighbors to perform your civic duty.  Alas, my (affluent) little town went for both Romney and Scott Brown, which made me feel a little less kindly towards my neighbors.

I work in the next town over from Belmont, where Mitt Romney resides.  One of my co-workers had just voted in Belmont when Romney arrived to vote, and the Secret Service cleared out everyone who had been in line for half an hour, so Romney could vote in privacy.  This didn’t win him any friends.  Belmont went for Obama.

To follow the election, I watched TV, mostly with the sound muted.  I followed my Twitter feed on my iPhone, and I consulted my favorite web site on my iPad.  How did I manage in the old days?

Elizabeth Warren, of course, defeated Scott Brown for the Senate.  Scott Brown gave a rambling but pleasant concession speech.  Brown has bobbed along on the currents of history for a couple of years, unable to become the master of events.  He won because he ran against a bad candidate at a time when the Tea Party was riding high.  He lost in a presidential election year in a highly Democratic state against a strong candidate.  He had to go negative against Warren, which made him look small, and he never had a good answer for why we should send him back to Washington and risk having the Republicans take over the Senate.  He just never made himself that important.  But he retains a lot of good will, and if John Kerry becomes Secretary of State, he would be a favorite to win Kerry’s seat — which probably makes it less likely that Kerry will become Secretary of State.

Unlike Brown’s, Mitt Romney’s concession speech was short and quite eloquent.  Unlike Brown, he didn’t talk about how he was going to keep fighting for the little guy — he didn’t talk about policy at all.  How could he, when it was so clear that he had no particular policies he wanted to fight for?  And, unlike Brown, he has no electoral base, no residual good will to call upon.  The pundits I watched spent a few minutes saying nice things about him before the speech, but now he’s gone, and I can’t imagine that he’ll be back.  Like Michael Dukakis (the other Massachusetts governor who ran for president), he’ll fade quickly into history.

Catholics backed Obama over Romney 50-48, despite the warnings of many bishops.  That’s a lot of people risking eternal damnation.

In my one election prediction, I figured that physician-assisted suicide would go down to a narrow defeat in Massachusetts, despite being initially very popular.  I was right!  The anti-suicide folks had a 5-1 spending advantage, plus media support, and that was enough to change enough minds.  I would not have anticipated that medical marijuana would win so easily, however.

Finally, here is the best election story I came across:

“I was filling out the form as were an elderly couple sitting at a nearby table,” said Houston on Tuesday. “His wife, who was helping him fill out the ballot, asked him a couple of questions but he didn’t respond. She screamed for help and I went over to see what I could do.”

Houston laid the victim on the floor and went to work.

“He was dead,” Houston said. “He had no heartbeat and he wasn’t breathing. I started CPR, and after a few minutes, he revived and started breathing again. He knew his name and his wife’s name.”

What happened next astounded Houston and the victim’s wife.

“The first question he asked was ‘Did I vote?'”

He did vote.  But I like it that we don’t find out who he voted for.

Jonathan Chait on Romney

I remain puzzled about what makes Mitt Romney tick.  Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine has a clearer perception of the man than I’ve been able to come up with.

Undoubtedly, what Romney believes in above all is himself. As a friend of his told Politicolast month, at a moment when his campaign appeared hopeless, Romney approaches politics like a business deal: “Just do and say what you need to do to get the deal done, and then when it’s done, do what you know actually needs to be done to make the company a success.” (This was the reporters’ paraphrase, not the friend’s own words.)

He meant this not in the spirit of exposing Romney’s fraudulence, but in an elegiac way — a lament for a great man who would do good if only given a chance. From a certain perspective, there is an understandable and even admirable elitism at work. Romney truly believes in his own abilities and — unlike George W. Bush, who was handed every professional success in his life — has justification for his confidence. He is a highly intelligent, accomplished individual.

Chait also talks about the weird (to me, at least) anger among the super-rich against Obama:

The vast industry devoted to exploring the unknowable question of Romney’s true beliefs has largely ignored a simple and obvious possibility: That Romney has undergone the same political and/or psychological transformation that so many members of his class have since 2009. If there is one hard fact that American journalism has established since 2009, it is that many of America’s rich have gone flat-out bonkers under President Obama.

If that’s true, then this follows:

Seen in this light, Romney’s belief in himself as a just and deserving leader is not merely a form of personal ambition free of ideological content. His faith in himself blends seamlessly into a faith in his fellow Übermenschen — the Job Creators who make our country go, who surround him and whose views shaped his program. To think of Romney as torn between two poles, then, is a mistake. Both his fealty to his party and his belief in his own abilities point in the same direction: the entitlement of the superrich to govern the country.

This is good stuff.  Read the whole thing.  All that’s missing is an explanation of why Romney’s favorite novel is Battlefield Earth.  That, of course, is reason enough to disqualify him for any position of authority over anyone.

Mitt Romney and Moderation

There was an article in today’s Boston Globe (not available on the Internet) about Mitt Romney’s move towards moderation in the late phases of the presidential campaign.  It’s not a bad article, but it’s typical of mainstream media pieces of course it completely lacks a moral dimension.  The article mentions the word Etch-a-Sketch about fifteen paragraphs in, and it quotes opponents decrying Romney’s cynicism, but it also quotes wily political veterans approving the pivot to the center.

What else can a reporter do?  Apparently you can’t say that someone so utterly lacking in core convictions, so self-evidently willing to say whatever he has to say to get elected, is therefore manifestly unfit for office.  In the same paper, though, the Globe editorial endorsing Obama gets it right: “Identifying the real Romney on any major issue — social, economic, or foreign — is impossible.”

I have been watching Romney for eighteen years now, and as far as I can tell, he has only one core conviction: taxes for rich people need to be lower than whatever they happen to be at the time.  Absolutely nothing else seems to matter.  This doesn’t mean he can’t get things done in a technocratic, numbers-driven way.  But at this point, how can you believe anything the man says?

Barney Frank, in his delightful over-the-top way, gets it right. Seven years ago he called Romney the most intellectually dishonest person in the history of American politics.  He stands by his statement today, except he’d strike the word intellectually.

I think politicians are by and large pretty interesting characters — that’s why I wrote a novel about one.  Obama is a deeply interesting guy.  The Clintons surely are as well.  So are Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, in their own ways.  But Romney somehow just makes me sad.  He’s obviously smart, and a decent guy in his private life.  But beyond that, he’s got nothing.  If he’s elected, I may have to retreat to my Arctic Fortress of Solitude and rethink my obsession with politics.

Empathy, Good Writing, and Mitt Romney

Beyond basic writing skill, the quality fiction writers need most is empathy.  You need to get deep inside the characters you write about and understand what makes them the way they are. This doesn’t mean that all your characters need to be sympathetic.  You can have villains–but villains without interesting, understandable motivations belong in comic books.

And of course the goal is to make your readers understand what you understand, feel what you feel. Here‘s the novelist Jane Smiley recently in the New York Times:

Reading fiction is and always was practice in empathy — learning to see the world through often quite alien perspectives, learning to understand how other people’s points of view reflect their experiences.

(I can’t really keep up with Jane Smiley’s output, but I can really recommend Moo and A Thousand Acres. Ten Days in the Hills, not so much.)

As a writer, I have thought a lot about politicians in my time, and it seems clear to me that a successful politician also needs to be empathetic.  Or, at least, he (or she) has to be really good at faking empathy.  This is somewhat tricky at the presidential level, where the candidates tend to be wealthy, accomplished, and far removed, at least in their personal lives, from the problems that confront everyday voters.  But of course presidential candidates are also supposed to be pretty good politicians.

Mitt Romney’s speech to campaign donors is shocking because it is such clear proof that he is utterly lacking in empathy for ordinary, struggling people. Here is Ezra Klein:

The problem is that he doesn’t seem to realize how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, or the agonizing choices faced by families in which both parents work and a child falls ill. The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives. They’re drowning in it.

Way before this latest incident, The New Yorker commented on Romney’s empathy problem:

But it’s getting harder to escape the conclusion that there’s a pattern to Romney’s behavior, that he has a real problem understanding and caring for those with whom he can’t easily identify. As Amy Davidson writes, “This story [of bullying a gay kid] is resonant because one can, all too easily, see Romney walking away even now, or simply failing to connect, to grasp hurt.” That may or may not be a fair conclusion—we are none of us mind readers—but given what we know about him, it’s certainly a reasonable one.

The additional problem that Romney faces is that he’s such a bad politician that he can’t even convincingly fake the empathy when not talking to his rich donors.  And we (most of us, anyway) are so easy to deceive–especially if we want to be deceived!   President Reagan was known at the Great Communicator, but recall the essay by Oliver Sacks in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, recounted here:

In the mid-eighties, Sacks studied the reaction of people with aphasia as they watched a televised speech by the actor-turned-president. Despite being unable to grasp the skillful politician’s words, the patients were convulsed with laughter by his bogus expressions. As Dr. Sacks explains,

“One cannot lie to an aphasic. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps, he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily.”

“It was the grimaces, the histrionics, the false gestures and, above all, the false tones and cadences of the voice which rang false for these wordless but immensely sensitive patients. It was to these (for them) most glaring, even grotesque, incongruities and improprieties that my aphasic patients responded, undeceived and undeceivable by words.

This is why they laughed at the President’s speech.”

Conversely, Sacks remarked on a woman with tonal agnosia who was also watching the address, but sat in stony-faced appraisal. Emily D., a former English teacher and poet, could have no organic emotional reaction to the speech but was able to judge it from a neural vantage point. Emily summed Reagan up thusly:

“He does not speak good prose. His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-damaged or he has something to conceal.”

Tell me about it! Sacks goes on to explain the implications regarding soothsayers and politicians:

“We normals, aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooled, were indeed well and truly fooled. And so cunningly was deceptive word-use combined with deceptive tone, that only the brain-damaged remained intact, undeceived.”

I’d be interested in seeing the reactions of aphasics to a Mitt Romney speech.

Lying — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t

Dunno why I’ve gotten so interested in lying lately.  But it keeps popping up in the news.  Here we see the ex-Yahoo CEO landing on his feet at some new high tech company.  He was the guy who lied on his resume by claiming an extra minor degree from an obscure college instead of going for broke with a bogus Oxford Ph.D. or something.  And now we see Fareed Zakaria getting himself in hot water by copying text from a New Yorker writer on his blog.

So I went and read Sam Harris’s free book on lying.  But he doesn’t really doesn’t have much of interest to say about the subject.

If you leave religion out of the picture (which, of course, Harris does), you generally have two ways of approaching lying (and other moral issues): the utilitarian way or the Kantian way.   If you go the utilitarian route, you can ask whether a particular lie adds to or subtracts from human happiness.  If you go the Kantian route, you can ask whether there is a categorical imperative not to lie, because that’s the way people should behave.  Harris dismisses Kant rather breezily, so we’re left with a utilitarian discussion, in which he brings up various cases where it might seem that lying would be a good idea, but it turns out not to be.  People lie to grandma about her terminal cancer, and everyone is worse off.  Harris tells a friend that his screenplay sucks, and the friend turns out to be grateful.  That sort of thing.  So, the world is better off if we don’t lie.

But that’s too easy!  Because obviously there are cases where lying works.  The Yahoo CEO lied on his resume, and eventually it tripped him up, but not so much that it ruined his career.  Mitt Romney is setting Olympic and world records for lying, and for all I know it may get him elected president.

One can, of course, make the case that lying is (at least in general) bad for society, even if it helps the individual.  So it comes out behind in the utilitarian equation.  And I’ll buy that–I don’t want Mitt Romney to become president!  But that’s uncontroversial.  The interesting thing, for me as a writer anyway, is the moral dilemma that lying presents to the individual.  In Senator, I present the protagonist as a presumably moral guy who ends up lying throughout the entire novel.  But he feels bad about it–it worries him, not just because he might get caught, but because it’s wrong.  Did it worry the Yahoo CEO?  Does it worry Romney?  Is Romney making utilitarian arguments to himself about the greater good that his lying is supposed to achieve?  Or is this just another business decision for him?

I wish Harris had spent more time looking at issues like that.  But I suppose this is why some people write novels instead of philosophy.

While I’m here, I’d like to recommend Rick Gervais’s weird little movie The Invention of Lying, which treats the issue of lying in an amiably subversive way.

What makes Mitt Romney happy?

In this post I pondered the weirdness of Mitt Romney not planning his taxes in such a way that he could release his returns just like every other candidate and head off the inevitable suggestion that he was hiding something.  How could a smart guy who has been running for political office for 20 years not take care of this?

Now the next stage of the taxes drama is playing out, with Harry Reid suggesting that Romney didn’t pay any taxes at all for the past 10 years.  This is a pretty ballsy move coming from a prominent Democrat; here‘s a pretty funny summary of the state of play.  Is Reid simply lying?  Irresponsibly repeating an unsubstantiated rumor?  Dunno.  But it keeps the issue in play for at least a few more days.  And any politician with half a brain would know that something like this would happen.  Romney can fulminate all he wants about how this is undignified and unfair, but the response is obvious: Release the returns, like everyone else, and prove Reid wrong.

Will this have an effect on the election?  Dunno.  I wouldn’t have expected the Swiftboat attacks against Kerry to have any traction in 2004–and neither did Kerry.  But they did.  And this issue obviously helps the Democrats define Romney, and keeps him on the defensive.  It’s hard to see a downside.

So how did Romney get himself into this fix?  Before, I attributed it to a failure of imagination on Romney’s part.  To take that a little further: It seems to me that what Romney knows, what he is good at, and (most important) what makes him happy is pretty simple: making money.

The political thing–that comes out of a sense of obligation: to his religion, to his family, maybe even to some deeply held principles (although that seems like quite a stretch).  He has been spectacularly successful at making money, but so far has been only moderately successful as a politician.  And that’s because politics calls on a bunch of skills and traits that he doesn’t really possess.  (His recent trip to the UK highlighted some of those problems.)

I spent a long time pondering what makes politicians tick when I was writing Senator.  The best nonfiction book I have read about this is What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, which I devoured when it came out in 1992.  It was a flop at the time, but has apparently managed to become a classic since then. And deservedly so!  Cramer got inside the heads of the people who were running for president in 1988 in a way that I found  engrossing and somehow even thrilling.  What remains with me is the randomness of the motivations that got them to where they were.  In particular, I remember his portrait of Dukakis.  Someone once said that Michael Dukakis was born to be governor of Massachusetts.  But here he was running for president.  Why was he doing that, when he already had the only job he had ever wanted?  It turned out that he didn’t really know himself.  There was a kind of logic to it, as presented to him by his aide John Sasso, that he was simply unable to resist.  The logic brought him the nomination and, if he had been a slightly better campaigner, slightly different from who he really was, it might have brought him the presidency.  But ultimately he didn’t quite have what it took.

Romney is starting to remind me of Dukakis.  There is a logic to his campaign that is going to bring him the nomination, and it might even bring him the presidency.  But if he loses, it will be because he too doesn’t quite have what it takes–as a politician, and as a human being.  Running for president doesn’t come naturally to him, and that’s why he keeps getting tripped up–by his taxes, by his tenure at Bain, by his comments on the London Olympics.  He must find it frustrating–the way Dukakis must have been frustrated by the Willie Horton attacks and the response to his debate response about the death penalty.  But that’s life at the top.

Life is stupider than fiction: Mitt Romney and his tax returns

It seems clear that Mitt Romney’s refusal to release more than two years of his tax returns will be something of a political liability.  Here’s the kind of hit he is taking, even from Republicans.

Democrats, led by Obama’s campaign, have pushed for Romney to release more years of returns. On Sunday, Bill Kristol had a similar message, saying Romney is “crazy” not to release more tax returns as soon as possible.

“He should release the tax returns tomorrow. It’s crazy,” Kristol said on “Fox News Sunday.” “You gotta release six, eight, 10 years of back tax returns. Take the hit for a day or two.”

One plausible theory I’ve come across (see here, for example) is that if he releases his 2009 returns, he might show even more income than on his 2010 returns, but with no tax liability at all.  The blogger says:

Still, willingness to do extremely aggressive tax sheltering (such as through loss generation from circular flows of cash) in 2009 would not come as a huge surprise, even though it seems like a dumb idea if you are preparing to run for president again.  I wonder if the very fact that he was running for president might have led him to figure that he was audit-proof, on the ground that the IRS would look too political if it started challenging things.

I would like to second the “dumb idea” remark.  I just don’t get it.  Mitt Romney is a smart guy, and apparently he has wanted to be president all his life.  He’s been running for elective office since 1994.  He is clearly willing to forego vast gobs of money that he could be making in the private equity world.  Couldn’t he see this coming?  If I were Mitt Romney in 2004 or so, and I was making the decision to run for the presidency, I’d start cleaning everything up.  What’s a few million dollars in taxes, compared to achieving your lifelong ambition of being the most powerful man in the world?

In a way, I find this more baffling than the record-shattering stupidity of John Edwards.  People do stupid things when they fall in love.  But people fall in love with people; they don’t fall in love with aggressive tax shelters.  Or maybe I’m just suffering a failure of imagination.

If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s Romney who suffered a failure of imagination.  To him, using aggressive tax shelters is as natural as breathing.  If you have vast gobs of income, of course that’s what you do.  Doesn’t everyone?  Living in Massachusetts, I’ve seen enough of Romney to know that he’s not a natural politician.  He’s smart enough to understand the game intellectually, but he doesn’t have good instincts.  If you’ve been wildly successful at everything you’ve tried your entire life, maybe you start thinking the game will be easier than it really is.  And that leads you to unforced errors like this one.

Or maybe he’s just an idiot.