Monday, February 13, 2012

Please-all politics won’t work/Mitt Romney needs to demonstrate inner solidity and conviction,instead of playing to every crowd

Please-all politics won’t work

Mitt Romney needs to demonstrate inner solidity and conviction, instead of playing to every crowd

David Brooks

At first glance, President Obama and Mitt Romney share some similar traits. Both Harvard Law School grads are smart and analytical. Both are emotionally reserved rather than touchy-feely. Both are traditionalist in their family and personal lives. But one difference is Obama seems self-sufficient while Romney seems other-directed. I’m borrowing the phrase “other-directed” from David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd.

Riesman argued different eras nurture different personality types. The agricultural economy nurtured tradition-directed individuals. People lived according to the ancient cycles and beliefs. The industrial era favoured the inner-directed personality type, who was guided by a set of strong internal convictions, like Victorian morality. This person was often rigid, but also steadfast.

The other-directed personality type emerges in a service or information age economy. Most workers are not working with physical things; they are manipulating people. The other-directed person becomes adept at pleasing others, at selling him or herself. The other-directed person is attuned to what other people want him to be. The other-directed person is a pliable member of a team and yearns for acceptance. He or she is less notable for having a rigid character than for having a smooth personality.

I don’t actually know what sort of person Romney is. He’s unwilling to talk about his roots, home and family history. But he is giving the impression of being a classic other-directed type.

He went to business school and learned to adapt to the needs of the marketplace. He didn’t specialise in a specific industry. He specialised in the management of management. In politics, he became the product he himself is selling, and that product has changed as his target market has changed. This presidential campaign Romney has been describing himself as a turnaround artist, suggesting to people that he is a rootless hired gun, detached from any specific location, community or product. Voters know that all politicians market themselves. But with Romney, many people wonder if it is marketing all the way down.

This is a bad moment to be coming across as an other-directed person. Americans are again in a state of spiritual anxiety, wondering if they are losing the hardy pioneer virtues that built the nation and defeated fascism and communism. In a period of fragmentation, information overload and social distrust, they want a leader who is rooted and resolute.

Republicans are especially suspicious of the other-directed type. They want their candidate to have built his temple upon a rock, to possess an unshakeable set of convictions, to be impervious to the opposition of Washington’s entrenched interests. They also believe the next president is going to have to make some brutally difficult decisions in order to reduce the debt. This is not a task for someone who is perpetually adjusting to market signals. If Romney is to thrive, he needs to show how his outer pronouncements flow directly from his inner core. He needs to trust voters will take him as he really is. He needs to tell his own complicated individual story and stop reducing himself to the outsider/businessman advertising cliché. He needs to tell us what about his character is more fundamental than his national park patriotism and his skill at corporate restructuring. He needs to stop opportunistically backtracking on his Medicare position, just to please whatever senior group he happens to be in front of. He needs to show he is willing to pursue at least a few unpopular policies, even policies that are unfashionable in his own party. Since many people fear that he is a suck-up, it would actually help him at this point if he violated party orthodoxy in some bold and independent way.

He needs to step outside the cautious incrementalism that is the inevitable product of excessive polling and focus-group testing. He needs to find a policy like entitlement reform that is so important to him that he’s willing to risk losing the presidency over it. The eternal rule of presidential politics is that a candidate has to be willing to lose everything if he’s going to win everything. If Rick Santorum weren’t running for president, he would still be saying the same things he is saying today. Very few people believe that about Mitt Romney. If he can’t fix that problem, he may win the Republican nomination, but it won’t be worth much.
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