ROMNEY’S BIGGEST mistake, however, has been to mislead voters. Or at least to fail to be fully forthright with them. For example, he invested considerable money and resources in a hokey biographical ad, derisively dubbed the "Love Story" in some circles. In the ad, Romney and his wife, Ann, take turns telling the story of how they met and fell in love. The ad tells how Romney worked as a night security guard and drove a car, an "AMC Marlin," that was, in Mitt’s words, "kind of awful." While memorable, the ad fails because it portrays the Romneys as more perfect than can possibly be true — golden sunlight is everywhere. And it fails to tell the whole story. Where’s his father, the presidential aspirant and former governor? Where’s his activist mother? Where’s his shirt? At minimum, the ad wasn’t consultant Murphy’s most creative work. (Murphy’s client Doug Gross, who is running for governor in Iowa, recently ran a similar ad.)
Compare that with a truly effective biographical effort: Michael Dukakis’s "Zorba" ad, which reintroduced the often-robotic former governor to Massachusetts voters in 1982. Designed by Dan Payne, the ad juxtaposed Greek music with photos of Dukakis running the Boston marathon and serving in the Army. While not portrayed as working class — the candidate’s father was a doctor — Dukakis was shown as the member of an aspiring first-generation ethnic family that he was. Dukakis quoted his parents: "Much has been given to you. Much is expected of you." It was the ultimate biographical ad. Unlike Romney’s ad, it provided important information that helped fill in the details about a candidate voters thought they knew but didn’t.
Payne sums up the difference between the two ads by noting that in the Dukakis spot, "we saw the real bio. We didn’t see a sanitized version of it."
Consider how odd it is that we’ve heard so little about the real biography of Romney, who is often described as one of the most accomplished members of his generation. How much about his work at Bain Capital have any of us heard? How much about his Michigan upbringing have we been told? What was it like for him to grow up as the son of a leading moderate-Republican politician? To be fair, Romney has invoked both his parents on the campaign trail — albeit sparingly. When asked about his stance on abortion at the debate two weeks ago in Worcester, Romney mentioned the fact that his mother was an early advocate of abortion rights. And when former senator Ed Brooke endorsed Romney at the State House last month, brief mention was made of Brooke’s relationship with Romney’s father. But the Romney of the television ads is like the Greek goddess Athena, who sprang from the brain of Zeus — he’s portrayed as the exclusive offspring of the Olympics.
It’s possible that Romney is queasy about his upbringing. He was a child of privilege who grew up in another state. Already defensive about his links to Massachusetts, thanks to the Democratic challenge to his residency, Romney may think it unwise to emphasize his roots. There may also be some sensitivity to his Mormon background, given the wave of criticism he received on that front during his 1994 campaign for governor. Or, since Romney is running as the ultimate outsider, he may find it awkward to harp on the fact that he comes from an essentially political pedigree. Does anyone doubt that Romney’s willingness to suffer the ignominy of a run for political office is strongly connected with trying to live up to his father’s legacy? It might be awkward to talk about it, but that’s Romney. Finally, the candidate may want to avoid discussing his background as an investor and venture capitalist given corporate CEOs’ current ill repute. All that’s understandable. But it also helps explain why Romney isn’t seeing the bang for his television-advertising bucks.
This unwillingness to portray Romney as he really is also seems to underlie his political style. Again, one of the themes of Romney’s campaign is that he has the business experience to help fix the state’s fiscal woes. But his style of happy talk — decent people and good ideas are "fabulous," questions are answered with numerous "thank-yous," the exclamation of choice is "oh, golly" — doesn’t sound anything like what we believe a successful businessman sounds like. Two other businessman-candidates — Ross Perot for president in 1992 and Michael Bloomberg for New York City mayor in 2001 — brought a kind of plainspoken directness to their political campaigns, which in large measure explains their success. Perot’s remark that the "loud sucking noise you hear is the sound of American jobs going south to Mexico" became a cultural touchstone. Contrast that with Romney’s almost craven desire to please all comers.
At the October 1 debate in Worcester, Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh asked Romney if he really could make up $1 billion in the state’s budget shortfall without cutting services for the elderly, poor, or children — all while keeping taxes low, as he claimed on the campaign trail. "I absolutely can," Romney told Lehigh. He explained that after an extensive review of various departments, he could combine the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and Massachusetts Highway Department, consolidate health-care insurance for state and municipal employees, and use a different formula for Medicare rates. "I can’t in 50 seconds give you the full list, but it will add up to a billion dollars if I get that time," Romney promised. Putting aside the question of whether the candidate can save the money he thinks he can save — and he probably can’t — Romney’s Pollyanna reply exemplifies just how little he resembles either Perot or Bloomberg. Even worse, Romney’s answer echoes the promise made by former governor Paul Cellucci when he stumped for a ballot initiative to lower state income taxes — namely, that taxes could be cut without affecting services. Most significantly, though, it fails to give an honest account of the fiscal pain our next governor will be forced to usher in.
One thing that successful leaders of our time have learned — even President George Bush when he is at his best — is the need to temper grandiose promises with tough talk. In his one or two good speeches about the war on terror, for example, Bush always made sure to warn Americans about the difficult times to come. This kind of language is completely absent from Romney’s rhetoric. How are any of us supposed to believe this allegedly tough business leader when it’s so obvious he’s not telling the truth about the state budget?
Romney’s advocates are quick to point out that their man’s fate in this race is far from settled, that the election is very close, and that it’s either candidate’s game to win or lose. All that is true. But it’s also true that the last two weeks are bound to be an ugly street fight, complete with brickbats. His most recent ads, which stress his status as an independent outsider and foe of taxes, signal the ground on which the campaign’s final days will be fought. And while either candidate can still commit a fatal mistake, the feisty and aggressive O’Brien is better suited for this kind of combat. (Is there any doubt that the mocking, chuckling O’Brien we witnessed in early debates is the real thing?) Romney enters the final stretch of the campaign without any of the benefits his advantages in money or television advertising were supposed to provide. And he has only himself — and his consultants — to blame.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com