Reassuring Romney

Along with perhaps 500 other New York Republicans, I squeezed into an Upper East Side catering hall this morning to hear Mitt Romney’s campaign pitch. More important than the words (which we have heard before and we will hear innumerable times again) is the music. More than Barack Obama, Romney stumbles a bit verbally, uses an infelicitous term or a clumsy construction. This occurs more frequently when he speaks about his love for and belief in the United States of America, especially at the conclusion of his pitch. This is the hardest sort of speech pattern to fake, because it reflects a speaker who is actually thinking about what he says as he is saying it, and whose emotions impinge on his delivery.

Romney is not a Great Communicator — he evokes Ronald Reagan less than Jimmy Stewart — but he is utterly and unmistakably sincere. His belief in the recuperative powers of the United States of America, of individual achievement and national greatness, is so passionate that he finds it hard to find words powerful enough to convey it. That’s what makes him so much more persuasive in person than in the cold medium of television.

People don’t buy a product because they believe in the product, but because the salesman believes in the product, an old marketing maxim goes. Americans are having trouble believing in the United States, after the Bush administration fell asleep at the switch and allowed the housing bubble to become a financial crisis, and after Obama’s hope and change turned into “Hope you’ve got some spare change.” As Romney pointed out this morning, small business start-ups are at a 30-year low. Most small business fail, he observed, but the successful start-ups account for most new jobs. Americans, he averred, want to take risks, want to innovate, want to get ahead. He mentioned an upholstering company in Ohio, a furniture rental agency turned manufacturer in Las Vegas, and the rags-to-riches story of North Dakota oil development.

If Americans are having a hard time believing in themselves, they know that Mitt Romney believes in them — and it is an authentic, deeply held, lifelong belief. He believes in them concretely, in their businesses and schools and churches, not in the abstract. And that’s exactly what this country needs: a president who can sell the idea of America back to its original owners, the American people. A slicker candidate would get less resonance from a jaded public. Obama will hide behind the teleprompter and come across coached, rehearsed, and canned; put him in front of an open mike and the risk is that real Obama (“You didn’t build that”) will come out, and it isn’t a pretty sight. Romney knows there is a gap between the founder of Bain Capital and ordinary Americans, but he is struggling to reach across it, because he really believes in ordinary Americans.

A lot of criticism has come the way of Romney’s handlers, but they seem to be doing just the right thing, that is, letting Romney be Romney. The rough edges are an advantage, not a liability. They convey the sense that Romney reaches out to his listeners, and is speaking with them, not at them. He comes across as a man who is not full of himself, but full of his audience.

Many of my conservative friends viewed Romney as a lesser evil and bemoaned the inability of the Republican Party to find a Gringrich/Santorum/Bachmann sort of standard bearer. But Romney well may be what the country needs right now. We are a country (as the former Massachusetts governor noted this morning) whose students rank in the bottom quartile of math and science achievement internationally; half of our babies born to women between 20 and 30 have unmarried parents; we have a hangover from the collapse of the Internet bubble and the housing market and have become more risk-averse. We could use a president who will help us to believe in ourselves, because he believes in us. And Romney suits the bill, better than any of us predicted.

Obama has taught the public that the government won’t fix the economy. The alternative is for the people to fix the economy. This election comes down to whether people will vote to lock in dependency — with transfer payments running to a fifth of all personal income, dependency has a bigger constituency than ever it did in the past — or for a chance to work their way out of the hole. Confidence is contagious, and Romney’s message, in style as much as substance, will tilt the balance towards the latter, better alternative.

(Also read “At Least Romney Won’t Peak Too Soon” at the Tatler.)