As Alana noted yesterday, Mitt Romney’s somewhat stiff personality appears to be as much of a handicap to his presidential candidacy as his record of flip-flops on some major issues like health care and abortion. It may well be the fact that he never smoked or drank will be held against him by voters who don’t think they can trust a person who won’t have a beer with them or who prefer the redemption stories of sinners who found the light (as was the case with George W. Bush) than the narrative of a man who never seems to have strayed off the straight and narrow path of virtue.
If so, this says something very interesting about American society. If we have gotten to the point where voters aren’t merely prepared to forgive someone for past transgressions but will actively reject a candidate because he has no past sins to atone for, then what we are witnessing is a sea change in our 21st century political culture. Will a nation that seems to honor victims more than heroes and that embraces those with tarnished reputations more readily than those without a blemish be one where an all-American boy who grew up to be a church-going, faithful husband can aspire to the presidency? Maybe not. But I think we ought to wait until the next election is over before we jump to that conclusion.
It is true that there was something particularly compelling in 2008 about a presidential election in which both candidates were remarkably candid about their backgrounds and personal flaws. Both Barack Obama and John McCain published autobiographies that made it clear neither had led faultless lives. Obama’s admission of drug use and his search for an identity after a fatherless childhood struck a chord with many Americans. So too did McCain’s self-portrait of a bad boy whose road to maturity required a passage in the hell of the Hanoi Hilton.
By contrast, Mitt Romney can offer us no such struggle with demon rum, infidelity or even an identity. His appears to be a life that started with a happy childhood, a smooth transition to adulthood, success in business and then on to politics. He grew up in comfort and is probably richer than even his father (a former auto company exec and governor of Michigan) was. When Rush Limbaugh complained last week that the media hadn’t fully vetted Romney yet, he was wrong. The mainstream media has been all over Romney this year, with newspapers such as the New York Times producing investigations of his religious life and anything else they can dig up. But it hasn’t resonated because they basically found nothing. Far from there being undiscovered skeletons in his closet, the problem for Romney may be that he’s so squeaky clean some people may wonder how someone so good can empathize with the rest of us ordinary folk.
That said, I would imagine that during the course of the next several months, we’ll have a chance to see how well — or poorly — Romney’s all-American boy persona plays with the American public. For all of his very public religiosity and goodness, he at least has the grace not to indulge in the sort of self-righteousness that is the hallmark of President Obama’s personality. It’s true there will be no photo ops with him drinking beer, but if Joe Lieberman survived the 2000 campaign without eating non-kosher food or travelling on the Sabbath, I imagine Romney will not fail because he won’t take a drink. My guess is the success of his candidacy will hinge on the viability of his Republican opponents, not his own goody-two-shoes reputation. If he wins the nomination and goes on to beat Obama next fall, it will not only be a historic first for Mormons, it may also be a sign Americans are still sufficiently open-minded to be able to elect a man who hasn’t needed to atone for public transgressions.