The Gipper. The Boy From Hope. The Reformed Drinker. The Commander of PT-109. Running for president is often about telling stories that convey a candidate’s character, values and experience.
Ronald Reagan only played George Gipp in a movie, but the doomed football star displayed uncommon courage in the face of adversity. Bill Clinton used his hometown of Hope, Ark., to send a message of optimism and resilience. George W. Bush’s recovery from addiction showed that he was not just a well-born elitist insulated from life’s struggles. John F. Kennedy’s wartime heroism made him the symbol of a “new generation of Americans.”
But candidates can also be victimized by stories that emphasize their flaws, failures and inconsistencies. John Kerry’s statement about Iraq war spending – “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it” – sealed his image as an unprincipled flip-flopper. John McCain’s years as a POW in Vietnam made a compelling tale, but it was 35 years old and emphasized McCain’s age and frailty. Jimmy Carter never recovered from the enduring image of American hostages led blindfolded through the streets of Tehran.
Which brings us to Mitt Romney. The story he tells about himself is pretty straightforward: I’m a businessman, not a career politician. I understand how the economy works and can create jobs. My company, Bain Capital, invested in successful startups like Staples, which today employs 90,000 people. I even helped stock the shelves before the first store opened.
In a time of economic turmoil, that is a smart and effective narrative. But recently Romney’s message has been turning against him. His strength is changing into a weakness. His business efficiency is starting to look like insensitivity, even predatory profiteering.
This alternative storyline is hardly a surprise. Ted Kennedy used it to smash Romney’s Senate bid in 1994, and Democrats are eager to revive it next fall if Romney wins the Republican nomination. But in New Hampshire, Romney resurrected the narrative himself with one of the most ill-advised comments – “I like being able to fire people” – since Kerry’s famous exercise in self-immolation.
Yes, the quote is being distorted. (Kerry’s was, too.) But it became an instant classic because it reinforced a storyline that was already out there: Romney is a man of wealth and privilege who remains completely clueless about the lives of ordinary folks, including the ones he fired.
In fact, whenever Romney tries to connect with those folks, he makes it worse. Take his ridiculous statement that “I know what it’s like to worry whether you’re going to get fired.” Or that he struggled in an “entry-level position” after getting his MBA. Does anyone believe that this son of a rich auto executive with two Harvard degrees ever worried – for one second – about where his next meal ticket or rent check was coming from?
His Republican rivals pounced immediately. Rick Perry called Romney’s business friends “vultures.” Newt Gingrich accused him of “looting a company, leaving behind broken families and broken neighborhoods.” And those attacks will only escalate in South Carolina.
Romney’s blunders don’t really jeopardize his chances for the nomination. In a woefully weak and fragmented field, he remains the only candidate capable of running a national campaign. But the fall is another story. Just as Republicans in 2004 used Kerry’s quote to drive home his reputation as a wishy-washy wimp, Democrats will try to make “I like being able to fire people” the defining words of 2012. Moreover, Romney would be facing one of the most gifted storytellers of his age in Barack Obama.
In 2008, the president wove a narrative that riveted the country: the Kansas grandfather who fought in World War II; the Kenyan father who came to America seeking a better life; the mother who raised a child alone, survived on food stamps and could not pay her medical bills; the father-in-law who walked on two canes but made it to his job every day; the young lawyer who turned down lucrative offers to work as a street organizer; the newlywed couple who struggled to pay off student loans. Those stories sent a powerful and appealing message: I’m just like you.
Sure, many of Obama’s tales seem a bit frayed and familiar today. Many Democrats are certainly disappointed and disillusioned with his performance. And it’s very hard to run as an outsider when you live in the White House. But will a man who boasts about liking to “fire people” ever be able to convince Americans that he’s just like them?
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.