I think all you pretty much need to know about the alternative directions Mitt Romney’s possible presidency might take can be distilled into four words: “Democratic party”, uttered in an interview with Fox’s Chris Wallace from December of last year, and “Democrat party” spoken just a couple of weeks ago on CNN to Soledad O’Brien as part of his already famous, “I’m not concerned about the very poor” episode.
More on those four words shortly. Meanwhile: most election observers aren’t like me. They don’t think that a few words can adequately reveal the totality of Mitt Romney. It seems as if they all want to know who he really is. The authenticity obsession about Romney has become a national, wasteful pursuit like the Iraq invasion and occupation without the laughs. Two reporters from the Boston Globe have written a biography entitled, The Real Romney. In it, they describe the horrific head on car crash and its aftermath which Romney, the driver, survived while in France on his post graduate Mormon mission. The wife of Romney’s religious mentor died in that crash. It marked, the authors intone, a “turning point” in Romney’s life. Sure—how could a trauma like that not deeply affect him? But…how exactly? Frank Rich opines in New York that, “We don’t know who Romney is for the simple reason that he never reveals who he is.” But that doesn’t stop Rich from concluding that Romney’s Mormonism is actually Romney’s Rosebud, specifically his attitude towards the Church’s reactionary, historically racist, currently homophobic politics. Romney has repeatedly pledged a loyalty to his faith as unshakeable as that to his wife of 42 years—surely this must be the key to understanding the man. But how can we really—that word again—know for sure? Romney also mystifies the Times’ David Brooks. But it’s easier to find a bottle of Jack Daniels in Salt Lake City than it is to uncover the real Romney. Brooks confesses that “I don’t actually know what kind of person Romney is.” Citing David Riesman’s classic, The Lonely Crowd, Brooks fears that Romney is the embodiment of an “other directed” modern man, someone “less notable for having a rigid character than for having a smooth personality.”
Of course, there’s nothing Romney-specific or partisan about the modern quest for the essence of presidents and presidential candidates. In a culture of celebrity, presidents are, well, presidents. No less than camping in Antarctica, it’s dizzyingly counter-intuitive for most of us to imagine having the combination of chutzpah, strategic savvy, and abiding self-love to believe that one could both be elected president and, indeed, deserved to be elected president. It’s not at all surprising that we long to know more about these seemingly remarkable people. They must be different from us, but how so, exactly?
Barack Obama wrote two rich books about his life. Nonetheless, since 2008, there have been dozens of books and articles speculating about the real Obama. Kenya/Indonesia/Hawaii/mixed race/community organizer/strange sort of Muslim name: Who could ever know with this guy—yet we just had to know. Even today, people ponder whether Obama is “really” a centrist deficit hawk, a progressive in the tradition of the Roosevelt’s, or, as one conservative biographer called him, a “stealth socialist.” Or go back to Lincoln, who inconveniently deterred his biographers by failing to leave behind a diary and then getting assassinated before he could write a memoir. No new sources have been discovered in decades. Yet new interpretations keep being churned out. The Lincoln never before revealed—depressed, gay, a victim of Marfan’s syndrome. Finally, the real Lincoln!
All of this is a crock. We—the astute writers noted above, and pretty much everybody else too—are fetishizing one of modernity’s most potent fantasies: that there is a deeply internalized “authenticity” which dramatically reveals our true, inner selves. Yes, we want to know, truly know, who these people are and who can blame us? And the task of excavating this “authenticity” seems especially urgent in the case of those few who wish to be our president. But we’re on the wrong track and we’ve been on it for a long time.
Still, we look for the key—a child’s sled, undiagnosed depression, an absent Kenyan father, an auto crash, a religious zealotry so destabilizing it can never be discussed. I’ve got my theory, too, about Romney. But it has to do with the public words of a very publicly significant person and his weighing the necessity of propitiating various constituencies, not the authentic nucleus of him which remains just beyond our ken. I can summarize my theory in those four words I noted at the outset: “Democratic party” from December, and “Democrat party” from just six weeks later.
Romney’s first remark, from the interview with Chris Wallace, read as follows:
WALLACE: Are you prepared for a long, bitter primary battle all the way to the convention?
ROMNEY: I — I hope we don’t have that, but my guess is that — that’s certainly a possibility.
We — we now have adapted the Democratic Party’s approach for allocating the — the early delegates on a proportional basis. And we watched what happened when the Democrats did that. Their primary process went on for a long, long time. (Emphasis added).
Pretty straightforward. Romney, the technocrat’s technocrat, at least as Massachusetts governor, is referencing here a procedural change that first, the Democrats, and, then, the Republicans made in their nomination processes, respectively. Procedural changes are important, but pretty bloodless and obscure to most people. And different organizations with very different missions can employ similar procedures. So Romney adopts the neutral language of social science and calls the Democratic Party by its commonly understood name—the Democratic Party. To link here the Democratic Party with the Republican Party is simply to acknowledge a structural feature of the American political system, its two major parties. Romney knew a lot of Democrats in Massachusetts and they are probably as unfrightening to him as a plaintiff’s attorney is to a defendant’s attorney in a civil courtroom. If Romney were running to be the president of Massachusetts, the one who says “Democratic party” would the “real Romney.”
Fast forward six weeks later on CNN and Romney has just gotten himself into a pickle about his plutocratic insensitivity to the poor. But the interviewer, Soledad O’Brien, has also pressed him hard about whether he can consolidate the support of Tea Party and ultra-conservative Republican voters. It seems to her he is also having trouble connecting to the vast middle of the American electorate. So what does Romney do? He tries to make himself the paladin of the mainstream middle class and depict the Democrats as the whining advocates of those marginal “others.” He sneers, “….we will hear from the Democrat Party the plight of the poor…” And then, “But my campaign is focused on middle income Americans.”
“Democrat” party is a slur that rightwing Republicans since Joe McCarthy have been using to belittle Democrats. It’s awkward and ugly to say (try it), and it removes from Democrats the right to have their party called by the name they have designated for it—like when white commentators used to insist on calling Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay. And the word itself is a noble one. People like Rush Limbaugh and, for a time, George W. Bush, before House Democrats called him on it, didn’t want Democrats linked to the word democratic. It would suddenly sound very jarring and disrespectful if Democrats and liberals regularly referenced something called the “Republic Party”, but contemptuous conservatives have been doing the equivalent for decades. (Hendrick Hertzberg wrote the brief, but definitive analysis, of the history and psychology of the “democrat” party slur in the New Yorker in 2006).
Above all, to say “Democrat party” is to identify with movement conservatism as it is spoken and written outside of Washington, DC, in what used to be called the fever swamps of America’s right wing. Bill Buckley, as Hertzberg points out, didn’t say “Democrat party” and explained why. Even the super cynical, human Obama stop sign, Mitch McConnell, doesn’t say it. McConnell is a senior member of the permanent Senate government, and those solons just don’t talk like this. But Sarah Palin says Democrat party. Limbaugh and his listeners say it. Every “Obama is a Kenyan Muslim Socialist who I saw poisoning all the dogs and a couple of elderly white people in my neighborhood late last night” blog in the country says it. And Romney, a technocratic wonk with a couple of Harvard degrees, said it the other day because he wishes to win the support of this bloc of voters, essential to anybody seeking the nomination of the Republican party. So when Romney used this insult the other day, he declared the party of Jackson, FDR, and John Kennedy an essentially un-American blight on American life. But then what happened to the Democratic office down the hall which shared its employee policies with its Republican counterpart?
So does Mitt Romney’s scorn for the Democrat party reveal who the real Romney is? No. Not anymore than his anodyne reference to the Democratic Party just a few weeks earlier did. Whoever he is, the real Romney is mostly irrelevant. Romney, like all of us, performs the roles he must within the public institutions he inhabits and the different dramas which he plays a part in enacting. There are reasons why he performs on the stages he does—he’ll never be any kind of liberal—but he doesn’t just play the same character every time. Each of those institutions will have a different set of observers with which the individual engages. The audience, venue and dramatic script shape and constrain our public performances. To perform the wrong script at the wrong time is entirely possible—and a contradiction between verbal and non-verbal cues often occurs—but significant social costs will then accrue to the performer. Even famously “conviction” driven politicians like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush or Paul Wellstone behaved in a manner that could only be socially interpreted—once an individual’s “inner direction” engages in a variety of externalized, relationally-defined episodes, the protocols and rules systems of those episodes channel the behavior of even the most willful actors. This is the great insight of Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which is, like The Lonely Crowd, a landmark work of 1950s American sociology. Goffman’s brilliant, if ruthlessly unsentimental, work pretty much undermines all of the romantic prattle about authenticity from Rousseau to the latest self-help scheme. The performer isn’t necessarily trying to deceive the audience (although sometimes s/he is). Rather, he or she attempts to intuit what a given audience is expecting in a given situation. Employing Goffman in this way is itself a conceptual shortcut, a heuristic device designed to properly frame, at least, what we are trying to understand about presidential politicians. But it places our judgments in the realm of the socially interactive, rather than the reductively psychological, and thus seems like a more fruitful way to apprehend likely political outcomes.
People are what they do, and part of what presidential candidates must do is project a fully integrated depth of being before multiple audiences. Romney’s political problem—his poor job performance as a professional politician—is that he has an almost poignant difficulty in managing to do that. His inability to merely fake the “realness” that people hunger for reminds me of what was once said about former Texas Governor, and Democrat turned Republican John Connally: he is the only man in the world whose real hair makes people think he’s wearing a toupee.
What is relevant is that if the Democrats somehow retain the Senate and even return to a House majority and the country elects Romney, President Romney will talk a lot about “working together with the Democratic party.” And he’ll probably cut some deals pretty similar to those that he made when he was the Republican governor of a Democratic state. He will support a lot of terrible public policy, but he won’t swerve entirely into Jim DeMint country. But if Romney increasingly worries that he could lose the nomination to a rage generating fifth tier candidate like Rick Santorum, he’s going to lambast the poor-coddling, religion hating “Democrat party” over and over again. And if he survives Santorum, and he and a Republican Congress sweep to victory in November, he will use his majorities to roll thru an ultra-right program of tax cuts for the rich, and reductions in government transfer payments for everybody else, and he will appear to be deeply alarmed about gay marriage and the federal funding that goes to Planned Parenthood.
We will probably never find out who the real Romney is, just like we haven’t found out who the real Obama or the real Lincoln is. And it won’t matter what he is not telling us about his Mormonism or how many nightmares he’s had about that terrible day in Beaulanc, France in 1968. But who controls Congress will matter a lot as to whether we see the Romney who basically agrees with Obama about health care, but just wants to figure out a way not to tax his own class to pay for it, or the Romney who will abolish Obama’s health care reform bill, defund the EPA and the NLRB, and redistribute money from the elderly and the poor to the rich. That is a play we should never want to see performed. I can’t make it any more real for you than that.