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Romney’s Non-Scandalous Past a Liability?

Mitt Romney comes off as the kind of person whose idea of a crazy time is wearing linen after Labor Day. So his People magazine interview about his crazy teenage years is pretty much what you would expect:

PEOPLE: Have you ever had a beer?

Romney: “Never had drinks or tobacco. It’s a religious thing. I tasted a beer and tried a cigarette once, as a wayward teenager, and never did it again.”

So Romney is an earnest, moral person who honors his religion. These are good things. But oddly enough, they could actually end up working against him in a general election.

Having wild teenage years was once a problem for politicians, but now it’s pretty much accepted – and almost expected – for our political leaders to have rebelled a bit. Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton tried to argue that he never inhaled. In 2000, Gore didn’t even bother giving an excuse. George W. Bush was open about his alcoholism, and John McCain about his womanizing. In the last election, Obama’s admitted cocaine use in college was met with a collective shrug on the campaign trail.

In a way, these stories of long-ago transgressions helped humanize them. It made them seem like more than just one-dimensional characters: they had problems, weaknesses, personal flaws that they once struggled to overcome. They weren’t perfect.

On the other hand, “perfection” may actually be somewhat of a liability for Romney. Since his first presidential run, he’s tried hard to shake off the perception that he’s too “cardboard” and too aloof.

Obama doesn’t exactly come off as a “man of the people,” either, but he does have one advantage on Romney. The classic poll question during presidential elections is “which candidate would you rather have a beer with.” That could leave Romney at an unfair, but undeniable, disadvantage. (It’s true that George W. Bush couldn’t drink either, but nobody would ever argue that he was less rugged than John Kerry or Al Gore.)

There’s a good chance Obama will try to highlight this contrast during the election, possibly as a subtle swipe at both Romney’s religion and his aloofness. And if you doubt that beer drinking will be an issue the media will follow endlessly, see here, and here.

Romney needs to figure out a way to connect with the public on a personal level, beyond the photo ops at dive bars. To start, it would be interesting to know more about what drives him. The answers don’t have to be perfect; in fact, it’s better if they’re not.


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