TAMPA, Fla.—Welcome to Mitt Romney.
With his speech to the Republican National Convention last week, the enigma running for president finally cleared some of the underbrush and revealed a clearer picture of who he is.
To a degree yet to be determined, he seemed to break free of the rut he and running mate Paul Ryan have been stuck in—that is, running against themselves. Ryan ran from his own budget and history, and Romney was too modest to toot his horn.
How many Americans know, for instance, that Romney gave away his inheritance? Or that he has worked several jobs, including the governorship of Massachusetts, for no pay? Or that he has given to and made millions for charities?
The problem with such modesty is that others create your narrative for you. Romney the successful businessman was forced into defending himself against accusations that he outsourced jobs. Oh, well, who didn’t? Perhaps the outsourcing didn’t take place under his immediate watch, but the direction of the company he founded was known to him. Why not accept that outsourcing, unpopular as it is, was the way profitable companies operated so that investors could make profits and so Americans consumers could have cheap jeans?
Romney isn’t one to brag, but he finally was able to express pride Thursday in his accomplishments. He managed to reframe the story of his years at Bain Capital as a success story of the kind Americans celebrate rather than apologize for.
How many Americans know, for instance,
that Romney gave away his inheritance?
Also missing from his personal narrative has been any mention of his faith, which largely informs his deeds. His reticence perhaps owed to the fact that he had to work so hard to gain the support and faith of evangelicals and others who view Mormonism with skepticism. Why open that door? Because it is Who You Are.
Romney managed to deal with the issue Thursday without lingering long on the details. His family’s religion may have seemed out of place in Detroit, he said, but it didn’t feel that way. His friends were more interested in what sports teams he followed than what church he attended.
Ryan, too, has tried to avoid being who he is. The budget guru to whom most Republicans defer on everything from debts and deficits to health care reform has been tentative in defending his record and, in some cases, pretended it doesn’t exist. In his speech last week, Ryan denounced Obama policies and maneuvers that closely resemble some of his own and made several not-quite-complete statements that resulted in a day of criticism and gave Democrats an opportunity to question both his credibility and his intellectual honesty.
In one instance, Ryan criticized Obama for ignoring the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission. What Ryan didn’t say is that he served on the commission and voted against its proposals.
There’s nothing wrong with either of those facts except their omission. His criticisms would have carried more weight had he mentioned these things and elaborated. What’s wrong with saying, “I served on the commission and while I had problems with it and voted against it, it was the right approach. We just didn’t go far enough and the president simply looked the other way”?
Instead, Ryan ignored his role in the process, essentially deleting his participation and his past. Whom does this serve? Certainly not the Romney-Ryan ticket, which risks being perceived as less than straightforward. This is crucial given a recent Gallup poll that found Obama leading Romney (48 percent to 36 percent) on the question of who is more trustworthy.
In another example, Ryan criticized Obama’s plan to cut $700 billion from the growth of Medicare. Ryan’s own plan also calls for $700 billion in cuts, though with different details. Why not acknowledge this? Everyone knows it—unless Ryan believes that his audience isn’t up to speed—so why not set the record straight?
Why not say, “Look, I want to cut $700 billion too, but there are ways to do this without hurting people. Here’s how.” It’s as though he wants no one to remember “that guy.” Now he’s this guy, the one who wants to protect Medicare.
While Republicans love Ryan and his “Let’s get this done” attitude, Romney and Ryan need more than internal support. They need the folks who voted for Obama last time and who feel betrayed. They need independents, specifically. There’s no dishonor in giving or accepting credit (or blame) where due, but you can’t win voter confidence if you lack it in your own record.
You can run, but you can’t run from yourself.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org