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Romney and the Language of Politics

In the wake of Mitt Romney’s clumsy comment about the “very poor,” conservatives have offered an intriguing explanation: he doesn’t “speak the language” of conservatism, because he’s new to it. I don’t disagree that this is one problem with Romney’s communication, but I think the former governor’s explanation of his comments reveals a slightly different focus.

Here is what Romney said to Jon Ralston in Nevada yesterday about the controversy:

I misspoke. I’ve said something that is similar to that but quite acceptable for a long time. And you know when you do I don’t know how many thousands of interviews now and then you may get it wrong. And I misspoke. Plain and simple.

I don’t see a reason this would reassure anyone. It was essentially a defense of what he said, though he wishes he said it better. Questions abound: Why is Romney speaking in the negative at all (i.e. who he will not serve, who he is not concerned about)? Hasn’t he been running for president long enough to have a better grasp of the language of presidential politics? Doesn’t he understand the tension between such comments and trying to lead a conservative political party?

But rather than reveal a lack of fluency in “conservaspeak,” I think his comments shine some light on one of the ironies of Romney’s campaign: His hedging and inconsistency make him sound like the typical politician, but in truth his troubles stem from the fact that he isn’t a politician and isn’t running as one. This was best captured in Peter Suderman’s March cover story on Romney for Reason magazine, “Consultant in Chief”:

At its core, the business is based on problem solving. Management consultants ask the same basic question over and over again, explains Avik Roy, a former health policy analyst at the Romney-founded firm Bain Capital and current senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute: “If you’ve got a problem, how do you then break the problem down into discrete parts that we can then empirically address?” The job requires narrowing down mountains of data into a few key metrics, then feeding the information back to the client in executive-friendly formats such as PowerPoint slide shows, colorful pie charts, PDFs splattered with bullet points, historical line graphs, and so on.

This has actually been one of Romney’s selling points, and it endeared him to conservatives before Obamacare was built on Romney’s own health care reform plan in Massachusetts. But that plan also reveals why conservatives are wary of Romney’s penchant for problem solving: there are no ideological roots to his proposals. Suderman describes the atmosphere in which Romney’s health care reform was hatched:

This time, when Romney acted, his process was explicitly consultant driven. He hired a team of health care consultants at McKinsey, a longtime Bain & Company rival, to investigate the state’s uninsured population. The preliminary work on the law was conducted in an ideology-free zone. “They didn’t approach it from the standpoint of ‘free market—yay!’ or ‘equality—yay!’ ” says [Avik] Roy. Instead, it was the usual consultant’s method: “What is the problem? Let’s analytically define the problem.”

Romney has always seen himself as a problem solver; that’s just who he is. This doesn’t mean he has no conservative instincts, or that he wouldn’t govern more conservatively in the White House than he did in Massachusetts–I think he does and he would. But he is simply not an ideology-driven person. He wants to identify the problem and find a targeted solution. In some respects, this is a very conservative instinct–he doesn’t have any desire for a government that, at least in his mind, does too much. He is aware of how easily costs can spiral out of control, and he understands the law of unintended consequences–something liberals never have and never will.

That’s what was behind his answer on the “very poor” and the “very rich.” He believes he has identified the primary problem area and wants a targeted solution. It may be smart, it may be useful, and some may even think it is what the country needs in this regard. But it is not the language of the politician.



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