I have a confession to make: Mitt Romney is really starting to get on my nerves.
It's nothing I'm proud of. I try to be as rational as possible in my writing and analysis of politics, marshaling facts to support my claims and avoiding impugning people's motives as much as possible. But I think I'm beginning to understand how Republicans felt about Al Gore in 2000. I don't mean what they thought or believed, like the phony story that Gore claimed to have invented the internet (he didn't). And I don't mean the simple displeasure we get from having to listen to someone we disagree with talk for a long time. I mean how they felt on an emotional, visceral level, whether those feelings were justified or not.
There are an awful lot of parallels between Gore and Romney, but the most significant is the way they are just profoundly uncomfortable with the part of running for office that involves talking to strangers and quickly constructing a natural-feeling interaction. It's amazing that Gore reached the heights he did, and that Romney has gotten as far as he has, without even a shadow of this skill that is so integral to their chosen profession (although in fairness, I've met people in all kinds of professions whose incompetence was no bar to their advancement).
If you were a Democrat watching Gore try awkwardly to relate to the people he met, you may have cringed a bit, wishing he could be more like Bill Clinton, but that thought was immediately followed by another one: OK, the guy's not the most natural politician. But he's smart and thoughtful and accomplished, and I think he'll make a really good president. That's how I thought of Gore at the time, and I'm sure that's how a lot of conservatives are now thinking about Romney.
Republicans, on the other hand, thought Al Gore was the phoniest guy they had ever seen. Everything that came out of his mouth sounded at best insincere, and at worst like a blatant, intentional lie. If Gore told them it was three o'clock, they wouldn't believe him. And this is how I'm now starting to feel about Mitt Romney. Like I said, I'm not proud of it. But it gets worse all the time.
The similarities are pretty remarkable. Al Gore's father was a senator who groomed his son for the presidency almost from birth. Mitt Romney's father was a governor and presidential candidate, and his intelligent and good-looking youngest son was probably told from early on that he could be president one day. Both were princes waiting for their chance to seize the crown, and yet for both, the greatest natural gift a politician can be blessed with—the ability to connect with a wide variety of people and convince them that their brief relationship is meaningful—is so agonizingly out of reach. Their substantial talents and work ethic cannot grant them that gift, no matter how they yearn for it.
So that quality most prized by the reporters who cover the campaign—authenticity—will never be theirs. Faced with their awkwardness, we conclude that they're fake while the politicians who are better actors are real. Their discomfort only spurs the discussions about authenticity and the search for the "real" Romney or Gore lying hidden within. But as Rich Yeselson recently wrote, "All of this is a crock." There is no authentic Romney to be uncovered, and like all politicians—like all people—he presents the version of himself that the situations he's in demand. He's just not very good at keeping us from seeing the calculation underneath. Phoniness is, in fact, a job requirement for a politician. They have to pretend they like everyone they meet, and care about the concerns of the nutballs who pester them. If they didn't, we'd call them surly and mean.
It would help, of course, if reporters weren't so easily fooled by good acting. George W. Bush managed to buy a ranch in 1999, give out nicknames on the press bus, and joke around a bit, and the press corps swooned at his authenticity. He was very good at those kinds of superficial interactions, and reporters concluded that that ease must represent something deeply real within his soul. Romney will never be able to convince them of anything like that, no matter what techniques he might try. Yeselson goes on:
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.
All these words about Romney apply equally to the man Democrats nominated in 2000. It's no wonder that when a character on The Simpsons got a talking Al Gore doll, when you pulled the string it said, "You are hearing me talk"—the perfect comment on Gore's inability to bypass his listeners' awareness of the calculation behind an interaction. But knowing intellectually that the awkward politician is no less "real" than the skillfully smooth politician can't mitigate the emotional reaction one has to witnessing a performance poorly executed. If your ideology inclines you to be generous to the candidate and wish him success, you will quickly tamp down that reaction. But if you already oppose what he wants to do, you'll find him more and more phony, more and more dishonest, more and more grating every time you see him.
That's where I've come with Mitt Romney, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. But if nothing else, when I see him speak and think of what an awful man my gut tells me he is, I can think of Gore, and understand Republicans a little better.
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