September 20, 2012

Winging it

In a comment on the previous post, I describe Romney-the-politician as a seasoned stake president (literally!) who's spent (a few too many) years behind the pulpit.

Here's why. Because of the lay structure of local congregations, Mormon leaders get adept at winging it behind the pulpit, padding out worship services, filling in for missing speakers on the spur of the moment. Even I, a clinical introvert, harbor no dread of public speaking thanks to my years in church.

Unfortunately, "winging it" is antithetical to predictability and reliability, which is why, to the dismay of historians (and anti-Mormons) who feast on the often wacky sermons of yore, modern Mormon General Conference talks are heavily vetted and thoroughly teleprompted.

Romney has become overconfident winging it, and his off-the-cuff remarks prove it. As Joe says, it's hard to think deeply when speaking extemporaneously, and a common recourse is to fall back on false syllogisms. And as Dan points out, the "47 percent" number is comically imprecise to start with.

As a starving artist, I belong to the 47 percent. I haven't paid income taxes in years. But believe me, the check I cut to the IRS to cover all my other tax obligations ain't pocket change. Still, get rid of that silly number and Romney makes a valid point: "middle class" is a state of mind.

People (and corporations) who ought not to do become dependent upon government, do believe that they are victims, do believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, do believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, "to you name it."

I don't think of myself as either "poor" or "entitled" (though I'm not so principled that I'll turn away the blessings of state paternalism when push comes to shove). I'm a middle class kid undergoing a momentary financial setback (that's gone on for about a decade).

Incidentally, this is why comparing health care systems is problematic, because how much a country like Japan spends on health care depends a great deal on what its citizens expect out of health care, what they feel "entitled" to. The average Japanese feels entitled to a lot less than the average American.

It's much easier to build an affordable social safety net when it doesn't have to hold the entire population, when the average person avoids testing its strength. During its Great Recession, Japan had low unemployment rates, a product of the social stigma and meager unemployment insurance.

For this reason, my sense is, on this issue, Romney ends up being right even when he's wrong. Other that huffing and puffing commentators who live to be offended, average people who hear him say that will think: Well, that's not me, even when it is. That's why Rush Limbaugh wishes Romney said it on purpose.

Alas, he didn't. Romney, to his credit, is a pragmatist and a problem solver. He's not a man with bedrock political principles who, like Reagan, spent years honing the rhetorical skills required to defend and explain them.

He's just winging it.

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
9/20/2012 9:14 PM   
I believe it is Romney's career as a financier that more strongly defines his persona and it is this persona that hangs like an anchor around his candidacy.

The private equity business is all about making deals based on cold, calculated, numbers. It is about having no other concern than reaping the greatest possible profit for the banker and his partners. That is how the financial world works. You have to be willing to fire people for the sole reason that doing so makes you and your investors more money. You have to be willing to negotiate for a larger piece of the pie for yourself and your investors, even if that leaves less of the pie for others.

This does not mean Romney is dishonest, or cruel. Romney is a professional doing his job just as any other professional does his. But his profession is at odds with the job skills of a politician in two significant ways.

The first limitation is the obvious one. Financiers are not generally trusted by main street voters. They are not seen as caring or empathetic. That is a stereotype that is always going to be hard to overcome.

The second limitation is more abstract but it is the more significant one. It is that as a financier Romney has had a job where he tells a few insiders - his partners - the truth while he tells all others a tale. The tale is not a lie. But it is a deceit. It is not in Romney’s self-interest to tell the managers and employees of his portfolio businesses how much he profits from their work. It is not in his interest to warn them of the risks facing their business. So he doesn’t. What he tells them is his rationalization for why they should work so he can realize his own gain.

Romney is so practiced at not revealing his full intentions, so rehearsed in hiding unpleasant details that he cannot help but come across that way. This weakness is compounded by the fact that he has very limited experience as a professional of making a public defense of something that matters a lot to him based on the true reasons for why it matters to him.

Romney’s best speeches are those where he is defending principles that are apparently true and that define his life experience. These include hard work, self-discipline, family, capitalism and free-enterprise.

Romney’s worst moments are where he defends party dogma and policy where at best he plays the good soldier but his statements are mechanical and lack emotional and intellectual depth. It is at these moments that Romney tends to fall back on his “Mormon” experience and play the “see how many different ways I can agree with you” strategy. This works to diffuse conflict but over time makes for really bad politics – such as Romney agreeing to Ethanol subsidies every time he gets a whiff of a corn husk.