Why is someone who is so good at making money so bad at talking about it?
Mitt Romney is not the first presidential candidate who’s had trouble communicating with working-class voters: John Kerry famously enjoyed wind-surfing, and George Bush blamed a poor showing in a straw poll on the fact that many of his supporters were “at their daughter’s coming out party.”
Veritable battalions of Kennedys and Roosevelts have dealt with the economic and cultural gaps between themselves and the voters over the years without much difficulty. Not so Barack Obama, whose attempt to commiserate with Iowa farmers in 2007 about crop prices by mentioning the cost of arugula at Whole Foods fell flat.
Romney’s reference last week to the fact that his wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually” is not grounds in itself for a voter to oppose his candidacy. Neither was the $10,000 bet he offered to Rick Perry during a debate in December or the time he told a group of the unemployed in Florida that he was “also unemployed.”
But his penchant for awkward references to his own wealth has underscored the suspicion that many voters have about his ability to understand their economic problems. His opponents in both parties are gleefully highlighting these moments as a way to drive a wedge between Romney and the working class voters who have become an increasingly important part of the Republican Party base.
The current economic circumstances have undoubtedly exacerbated the problem for Romney. Had Obama initially sought the presidency during a primary season dominated by concerns about the domestic economy rather than war in Iraq, his explanation that small town voters “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” might have created an opportunity for Hillary Clinton or even the populist message of John Edwards.
But Obama’s early opposition to the Iraq war gave him a political firewall that protected him throughout that primary campaign, while Romney has no such policy safe harbor to safeguard him from an intramural backlash.
The Loyal Opposition: Memo to Mitt Romney: We Get It. You’re Rich.
The presidential aspirant can’t seem to stop reminding voters of his considerable wealth.
- Romney and Obama share a lack of natural affinity for this key group of swing voters, but it is Romney who needs to figure out some way of addressing this shortcoming if he wants to make it to the White House. It’s Romney’s misfortune that the voters’ prioritization of economic issues, his own privileged upbringing and his lack of connection with his party’s base on other core issues put him in a much more precarious position than candidate Obama ever reached.
By the time the 2008 general election rolled around, Obama had bolstered his outreach to these voters by recruiting the blue-collar avatar Joe Biden as his running mate. Should Romney win the Republican nomination this year, his advisers will almost certainly be tempted by the working-class credentials that a proletarian like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or Florida Senator Marco Rubio would bring to the ticket.
Of more immediate concern to Team Romney should be how their candidate can overcome his habit of economic tone-deafness before Rick Santorum steals away enough working-class and culturally conservative voters to throw the Republican primary into complete and utter turmoil.
The curious thing about Romney’s verbal missteps is how limited they are to this very specific area of public policy. He is usually quite articulate when talking about foreign affairs and national security. Despite his complicated history on social and cultural matters like health care and abortion, his explanations are usually both coherent and comprehensible, even to those who oppose his positions. It’s only when he begins talking about economic issues – his biographical strength – that he seems to get clumsy.
At this point, the Romney campaign has three options for dealing with this challenge. The first is for their candidate to stop saying peculiar things about financial matters. That’s not going to happen.
The second possibility would be for him to outline a series of proposals specifically targeted at the needs of working-class and poor Americans, not only to control the damage from his gaffes but also to underscore the conservative premise that a right-leaning agenda will create opportunities for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. But while that approach might help Romney in a broader philosophical conversation, it’s unlikely to offer him much protection from the attacks and ridicule that his unforced errors will continue to bring him.
The question is why Romney hasn’t embraced a third alternative – admitting the obvious and then explaining why he gets so tongue-tied when the conversation turns to money. Romney’s upbringing and religious faith suggest a sense of obligation to the less fortunate and an unspoken understanding that it isn’t appropriate to call attention to one’s financial success.
It wouldn’t be that hard for him to say something like:
I was taught not to brag and boast and think I’m better than other people because of the successes I’ve had, so occasionally I’m going to say things that sound awkward. It’s because I’d rather talk about what it takes to get America back to work.
Americans tend to gravitate toward candidates who are self-aware about their shortcomings. There’s no guarantee that this type of approach would work for Romney. But white working-class voters represent a critical support base for the Republican Party — and increasing numbers of them are shopping for an alternative with whom they feel some semblance of an emotional connection.