I don’t entirely agree with Walter Russell Mead that Romney needs to focus on becoming more likeable by doing a great job of explaining his faith. It isn’t that I’m against Romney explaining how he was shaped by his personal faith and his institutional church. I assume Romney is going to do some of that in the next five months and, for the sake of the country, I hope he does a good job.
But I think that the nonreligious elements of Romney’s persona are a bigger problem. My read of the polls is that a) the median voter doesn’t think Obama has done a good job on economic policy and b) the median voter thinks Romney knows a lot about the economy. The problem comes with Mike Huckabee’s observation that people want to vote for the guy who reminds them of the guy they worked with and not the guy who laid them off. That is powerful observation - though I think only partly true. I think Huckabee is getting at something real in that people want a presidential candidate who has some key experiences in common with them and/or an understanding of their problems. At least one.
Not a lot of people doubt that Romney is a smart guy, but that doesn’t mean he is looking out for your interests. Romney can come off as that slick consultant who comes in, tells people to keep up the good work, and tells management to lay off half the staff. His intelligence works out pretty well for him, but that doesn’t mean it works out for you. Romney’s history of flip-flopping doesn’t help him here either. It just comes across like he is saying whatever he needs to say to get elected so that he can . . . well it isn’t really clear. There is a logical problem with this kind of suspicion of Romney. He isn’t running for President to enrich himself or his rich friends. He already gives away a tenth of what he makes.
But there is a kernel of reasonableness there. Does Romney understand and prioritize the policy problems of working and middle-class life? Does he have plausible and comprehensible plans for giving people a better chance at a better life? If Romney wants people to like him more, he needs to explain how he plans to use his intelligence to work for the public interest. Reihan Salam has a good suggestion. Romney can point to how his experience making companies more efficient to make the government work better for the public at a better cost. Romney should be the candidate of the private sector, but he should also be the candidate of government. He should be the candidate of a (relatively) cheaper, more efficient, fairer and more honest government. A government that won’t sharply raise your taxes, and won’t go bankrupt and be forced to suddenly cut benefits to the elderly. A government where policy will move towards cultivating an economy that rewards hard work rather than government connections to favored industries. As Salam writes:
This needs to be the other half of the Bain Capital story something to the effect of we rolled up our sleeves and tried to save American businesses in the toughest, most globally competitive sectors. We did it despite the facts that the tax code encouraged us to load up on debt, our health system drove countless American businesses in the ground, and our schools didnt give our workers a fair shake. That is why were here to see to it that government becomes an ally of American families and firms, not a force that saps them of their strength and vitality. That means more competition and more innovation. It means looking out for consumers, not providers.
Though this is based on the assumption that the economic situation in November will be as ambiguous as it is now. One can imagine developments (both good and bad) that would make the quality of Romney’s campaign (as long as it above a certain minimum) irrelevant.