A year ago, many GOP operatives and activists thought defeating the president would be easy. Unemployment and dissatisfaction would remain high, so all the GOP had to do was nominate a candidate with no obvious flaws and the nation would elect him.
We now stand five weeks from Election Day. Unemployment and dissatisfaction remain high, yet Mitt Romney trails the president in every national poll. Worse, he trails in virtually every poll of key swing states such as Ohio and Virginia, without which he cannot win.
Gloomy Republicans now ask two questions: How did we get here? And how can Mitt win?
The answer to the first is easy, if painful to acknowledge. The president’s campaign, aided by numerous unforced errors from Governor Romney, has painted the wealthy businessman-turned-politician as a paladin of plutocracy. They have told a nation wracked with doubt and worry that if Governor Romney becomes president, he will make decisions to benefit the successful at the expense of the middle and working classes. And, for now, swing voters who supported Obama four years ago believe the caricature.
The state of the campaign is analogous to the classic Christmas movie It’s A Wonderful Life. The Obama campaign has cast the race as between the hardheaded, hardhearted banker of Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter, and the softheaded but kindhearted building and loan manager, George Bailey. No one denies that Mr. Potter is a competent businessman, but everyone knows that when the chips are down, he won’t hesitate to foreclose on a mortgage. Bailey, on the other hand, will make allowances for people who need a hand up when they’re down, even if it’s not the best business decision.
The bottom line in this election is that Americans want to be governed by George Bailey, not Mr. Potter. They may respect Mr. Potter’s business acumen, but they want someone who will give them a break.
If you doubt that caricaturing a political leader as a selfish lout can work, turn your eyes to our great northern neighbor. In last year’s Canadian elections, the Conservatives attacked Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff, who had returned from Harvard to enter politics a few years earlier, as an egomaniac whose return was motivated more by ambition than love of country. Their tag line was succinct and brutal: He Didn’t Come Back For You.
The Obama campaign is running an equally savage and personal campaign against Governor Romney. Their subliminal tag line is also succinct and brutal: He’s Not Running For You.
Ignatieff led the Liberals to their worst election showing in their history and lost his own seat to boot. Governor Romney won’t lead the GOP into the abyss, but if he wants to turn the race around, he needs to do what Ignatieff could never do: convince the average voter he actually cares about them. He needs to show he’s really Bailey with better business sense, not Potter with a better PR agent.
That cannot be done by appealing to facts and figures about the economy. If that would work, it would already be working. Instead, the governor needs to show average voters that he intuitively understands their hopes and dreams, their fears and nightmares. He needs to convince them that when the chips are down, he’ll have their back.
To do that, he must do what he has been loath to do throughout the five years he’s been openly running for president. Mitt Romney must show Americans what’s in his heart.
I’m not talking about having people stand up and say why he’s a generous fellow, a solid citizen, and a loving father. That might have sufficed five months ago, when Americans were just getting to know him. But now Americans will need to see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears what motivates the man who is asking for their trust in the coming difficult years ahead.
It comes down to two related but distinct questions. Is Mitt Romney running for president because he wants to lead Americans? Or is Mitt Romney running for president because he wants Americans to follow him?
If he is running because he wants to lead us, he needs to show us he understands and respects us. He needs to get out of his comfort zone, to have unscripted events with average, non-screened Americans so that he can listen to their concerns and respond. He needs to spend less time spouting facts and more time telling stories. He needs to engage our hearts as well as our heads.
This won’t work if it’s not in his heart. A campaign always reflects the candidate, and if it’s not in his heart, it will come across as contrived and inauthentic if he tries to bare his soul. If he really doesn’t believe that a fireman or a truck driver is doing something of equal dignity to what a successful businessman does, no photo op or staged event can overcome that empathy gap. Any attempt to do so will simply produce a Dukakis-in-the-tank moment, a picture that tells a thousand words of your opponent’s writing.
If it is in his heart, though, it can work. And the Romney campaign can look to the example of Richard Nixon, with whom he has some similarities, to see how to do it.
When Nixon ran in 1968, he and his advisers (including a young Roger Ailes) knew they had to humanize their candidate. They needed to show that he could relate to average people and poke fun at himself, and yet had the experience and knowledge that would let him make decisions in Americans’ interests. In short, they needed to convince Americans that he wanted to lead them, and that he was capable of doing so.
They devised a number of ways to do this. One was to place Vice President Nixon on the No. 1 TV show in America, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which despite its popularity was firmly a part of the counterculture. One of the show’s running gags was to have an actress, Judy Carne, tricked into saying “sock it to me,” after which she would be doused with water. In an unannounced September appearance, Nixon showed up to utter the magic line, automatically connecting with millions of viewers in a self-deprecating way. Humphrey refused to make a similar appearance, believing it undignified, a decision he subsequently thought might have cost him the election.
Nixon also appeared in a series of 60-minute live TV shows. Without a podium or notes, he would take questions from the audience and answer them, showing that he was both open to the average person’s concerns and able to effectively respond to them. Finally, he appealed to the average voter’s sense of unease at the turmoil of 1968 by speaking of the “silent majority,” contrasting their quiet, law-abiding dignity with the sophisticated but loud and angry rioters.
Nixon’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention was masterful, evoking a love of America that transcended class and race and tying it to an America that reined in government spending but promoted public virtue. Perhaps he could give this speech because he himself had been born of humble parentage and experienced poverty in his youth. But whatever the cause, Governor Romney should read these words concluding President Nixon’s speech and ponder whether he shares the sentiments expressed.
Tonight, I see the face of a child.
He lives in a great city. He is black. Or he is white. He is Mexican, Italian, Polish. None of that matters. What matters, he’s an American child.
That child in that great city is more important than any politician’s promise. He is America. He is a poet. He is a scientist, he is a great teacher, he is a proud craftsman. He is everything we ever hoped to be and everything we dare to dream to be.
He sleeps the sleep of childhood and he dreams the dreams of a child.
And yet when he awakens, he awakens to a living nightmare of poverty, neglect, and despair.
He fails in school.
He ends up on welfare.
For him the American system is one that feeds his stomach and starves his soul. It breaks his heart. And in the end it may take his life on some distant battlefield.
To millions of children in this rich land, this is their prospect of the future.
But this is only part of what I see in America.
I see another child tonight.
He hears the train go by at night and he dreams of faraway places where he’d like to go.
It seems like an impossible dream.
But he is helped on his journey through life.
A father who had to go to work before he finished the sixth grade, sacrificed everything he had so that his sons could go to college.
A gentle, Quaker mother, with a passionate concern for peace, quietly wept when he went to war, but she understood why he had to go.
A great teacher, a remarkable football coach, an inspirational minister encouraged him on his way.
A courageous wife and loyal children stood by him in victory and also defeat.
And in his chosen profession of politics, first there were scores, then hundreds, then thousands, and finally millions worked for his success.
And tonight he stands before you — nominated for president of the United States of America.
You can see why I believe so deeply in the American Dream.
For most of us the American Revolution has been won; the American Dream has come true.
And what I ask you to do tonight is to help me make that dream come true for millions to whom it’s an impossible dream today.
See what Nixon does here with imagery rather than fact. He ties his dreams and accomplishments to those of others; his success is merely an example of the success every American can have. There are no “makers” or “takers.” There are only normal Americans who dream of comfort and self-reliance, or perhaps something more. Nixon “builds” his success, but he does so because of the sacrifice of others — his success is a joint venture and a shared journey. And he’s running so that every American can be helped to achieve the American Dream, and he’s going to use government to do it.
Perhaps Governor Romney cannot express similar sentiments. If so, he is really asking Americans to follow him because he is greater than us. And if that is why he is running, to demonstrate his abilities on the highest and most difficult stage in life, then Americans will see that and turn away from him. Rejecting that idea — the idea that the mass of mankind has been born with saddles on their backs, with a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately — is the heart of the American Dream.
But let’s assume that his failure in this campaign to convincingly utter Nixon’s sentiments is one of reticence, rather than of conviction. Perhaps the governor believes it would be undignified or unpresidential to expose his soul to Americans in this manner. Indeed, he suggested this in rejecting the idea of appearing on Saturday Night Live: What was good enough for Nixon is not good enough for him. Is this high-minded attitude refreshing, or is it conceit masquerading as humility?
Americans are ready to vote for Mitt Romney. But they need to be convinced he seeks to lead them; they need to know his presidency will be something they are part of.
Win the election. Save your country. Open your heart.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.