The New York Times published a fascinating story yesterday that ought to give plenty of fodder to Mitt Romney’s admirers as well as his detractors. The front-page feature seeks to examine the lessons that can be learned by examining Romney’s time at Harvard University in the 1970s when he simultaneously earned business and law degrees. The result is a portrait of an incredibly able and intelligent man focused on achievement and with keen analytic powers that made him a wild success in the world of finance. This sets him up as an ideal president in an age of economic uncertainty where the ability to understand the economy and how business works should be at a premium.
But what also comes across is that Romney was, and perhaps still is, a person without strong ideological convictions outside the realms of faith and family. The Harvard business program prizes case-by-case analysis and data research and, at least according to this article, rewards pragmatism and problem solving, not ideology. According to his former classmates and friends interviewed in the piece, that approach perfectly suited Romney’s personality. And it is exactly that trait that scares conservative Republicans who see him as a shape-shifting, soulless technocrat who cares nothing for the principles that guide their party.
If, as his critics constantly tell us, Romney is the candidate of his party’s elites, this story is also a reminder that the former Massachusetts governor is the epitome of the notion that the best and brightest deserve the highest rewards. Earning both business and law degrees at a demanding institution like Harvard is not a task for the faint of heart. Already married and a father of two, Romney was obviously more mature than many of his classmates, but he was also more hardworking than most and driven to succeed. The political and social issues that dominated the thinking of most students in that era were of little interest to him. Nor did he spend much time socializing. The story points out that George W. Bush was a year behind him at Harvard Business, but the two had little contact as the fun-loving future 43rd president and Romney clearly did not move in the same circles.
The insights into Romney’s character ring true with everything we have learned about his later business and political careers. Above all, Romney is a problem solver. Though conservative in his personal life and perhaps in his instincts about the world, his guiding philosophy is pure pragmatism: analyze the data and the individual case and come up with a solution.
To note that a man can absorb vast amounts of complex information and synthesize them into a practical plan of action is hardly an insult. It is a rare talent and should be prized. But those looking for a presidential candidate who can, in the style of GOP hero Ronald Reagan, express broad political principles, are always going to be a bit disappointed with Romney. He is at his best when fixing broken things–be it companies, Olympic games or budgets. But as a standard bearer for a movement or as someone who can exercise the vital task of articulating moral leadership, Romney seems out of place.
What his classmates saw at Harvard are the same qualities that both attract and repel voters today. His economic expertise and pragmatism make him the most electable Republican in 2012, while his lack of ideology makes many conservatives long for anyone else to lead their party. Had a more credible conservative appeared to challenge him, Romney wouldn’t have had a chance. But in the absence of such a paragon, Republicans will probably have to make their peace with the man who seems to be very much the same person who excelled at Harvard four decades ago.