It was at the height of election night that I sent out this tweet based on a conversation I just had with my daughter about the Obama vs. Romney presidential race. Seeing the truth in this simple idea isn’t that hard. You will read much more complex arguments as to why Romney lost his bid for president, but I think it was just that simple.
Like any new presidential contender, Mitt Romney was a relative unknown to most of the nation and his bid for president relied heavily on a country getting to know, and becoming comfortable with who he is. Romney seemed like a decent enough fellow: a nice family, a political pedigree, successful businessman, and previous experience as governor of Massachusetts. On paper, this looked fine and even maybe a good fit for solving the current economic ills of the country, so he ran on those issues, focusing in on his resume and why he would be the right man to fix our economic woes. But that’s a very complex task and as every president or politician would tell you, what you set out to do in politics usually isn’t reality once you’re in the job. Political compromise, trade-offs and sheer dumb luck (or lack of it) can change the landscape of a party agenda fairly quickly. Keep in mind as well, modern presidents are much weaker politically than their historic counterparts and typically must face a strong congressional opposition. That’s a political norm now and not an exception.
So character is seeing a renewed focus in political campaigns these days. What happens when the situation on the ground changes? What will my candidate do in a crisis or when they don’t get their way? How will they adjust? Are they a flip-flopper who won’t stick to core ideals? I think it’s these questions that were key in the campaign, and not the exact steps of how to fix a big and complex economy. We all know how to answer these questions on the president’s behalf, but we really didn’t know Mitt Romney. And Romney let his opposition define him on every point.
I’m sorry Jim, I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m gonna stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not gonna keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it. — Willard Mitt Romney
For me, Romney was Gordon Gekko. The former Bain Capital corporate raider that was responsible for axing jobs and pocketing the profits for himself. Unfair perception? Perhaps, but I’ve had a few run-ins with Bain over the years in the big corporate world and that perception isn’t too far off. As a former manager once told me, “Perception is everything,” in other words, the truth be damned! In politics, perception is indeed everything so when Mitt formulated the bizarre and rambling thought during the debate about borrowing money from China to subsidize PBS and by association, Sesame Street which represents a whopping 0.014% of our national budget, it was the political equivalent of putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger. The perception of who Mitt Romney is, was sealed and the opposition quickly made political hay of it the very next day. Sure, there were “binders full of women” and the president’s performance during Sandy, but I believe this signaled the beginning of the end of Mitt Romney in the hearts and minds of the American electorate. His character was out of touch with America.
In politics, you don’t mess with something like Big Bird or Sesame Street, an over 40 year old institution of free education to kids, many of whom are below the poverty line. Presented as a whole, the education PBS has provided to millions as under 1% of our national budget is a resounding success story, yet Romney’s reputation, perceived as a corporate raider blind to a beloved institution, willing to abandon it for a small uptick on the bottom line, made Americans nervous about his thoughts on even more important government programs like FEMA which is a critical government agency during a terrible storm like Sandy.
I’m sorry Mr. Romney and all the other future candidates that follow in your footsteps: in politics, you just don’t mess with Big Bird.