It’s been that kind of week for Mitt Romney. He put his foot firmly in his mouth by offering to bet Rick Perry $10,000 with a flippancy that a less wealthy man might wager $10; the New York Times published a lengthy feature detailing the former Massachusetts governor’s somewhat schizophrenic approach to money. The piece, titled “Two Romneys: Wealthy Man, Thrifty Habits,” painted a portrait of a man of means who disdains the trappings of wealth and disliked spending money except when it came to acquiring expensive real estate. In one sense, it was a highly sympathetic profile of someone who was raised to believe in hard work and the value of a dollar but who was also oddly tone deaf to how his stingy ways can come across to others.
While this aspect of his character doesn’t tell us any more about what kind of a president he will be (though his dislike of spending certainly bodes well), this story may give us some insight into his difficulties as a candidate. For some reason, this well -spoken, handsome and highly accomplished individual just can’t get enough people to like him. The distrust a great many voters seem to have for Romney goes deeper than just health care and abortion–though those issues certainly have harmed his image among conservatives. His inability to connect with people or to understand why they view him with distrust is making it hard for this consummate businessman to close the deal with Republicans, even though his chief rival — Newt Gingrich – is as guilty of flip-flopping as he is. As Romney launches ads this week focusing on Gingrich’s personal flaws, it could be that his own less easily perceptible imperfections are having a greater impact on the GOP battle than the former Speaker’s dubious personal history.
Those writing off Romney this week after his first poor debate performance may be jumping the gun. Romney has the financial resources to weather a rocky patch and keep contesting primaries — especially in larger more moderate states — while accumulating enough delegates to stay in the fight. Gingrich’s weaknesses may yet sink him while Romney stays afloat. But the dislike of Romney, which as much as anything else has fueled the rise of Gingrich, can’t be dismissed as merely the result of Tea Party or religious conservative rigidity. The reason why the bet gaffe resonated was that it spoke to something in his character that strikes many in the public as insincere or indicative of his inability to understand the sensibilities of others.
That someone with as sterling a resume and a squeaky-clean personal life would be said to have a character problem doesn’t seem to make sense. Romney appears to be a man of unimpeachable character and great personal virtue. But there is also something in his manner that strikes all too many as false. Like one of his employees at Bain Capital who, according to the Times, said Romney told him he wished could have a Porsche too, when in fact, he could have had as many sports cars as he wanted, there is a disconnect there that troubles others and of which the candidate is strangely unaware. It may not be fair or completely explicable but it exists, and it’s far from clear there is much he can do about it.
Perhaps as the campaign goes on, Romney will loosen up more and allow the public to see more of his admirable qualities. But for now, political observers searching for an answer as to why the resistance to Romney is so intense must concede that this complex and talented figure may just have the type of personality that provokes an antipathy that cannot be overcome.