Saturday, September 29, 2012

Mitt Romney Falls Into the Empathy Trap

With Intrade giving Barack Obama a 78.6% chance of re-election everyone is starting to write pre-mortems for the Romney campaign.

This morning a Romney campaign official conceded that the candidate is a lousy campaigner, and even a lousy politician and a lousy leader, but, boy, is he a great manager.

The campaign is trying to craft a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but it does not feel like a winning concept.

During the primary season, conservative Republican potentates and pundits flocked to Romney because they were impressed by his ruthlessness. They also believed that he was a sure winner.

Yet, as I noted at the time, Romney did more than ignore Ronald Reagan’s commandment not to speak ill of his fellow Republicans. He did nothing but speak ill of his fellow Republicans.

Trashing your colleagues does not make you a leader. If you have walked all over them to reach the summit what makes you think that they will be there for you when you need them?

If we are looking for a symptom of the Romney campaign implosion, I nominate John Sununu. How smart do you have to be to know not to send out someone as discredited and disliked as John Sununu as a campaign spokesman? Does Romney really believe that all those Sununu appearances on Fox News are going to gin up the conservative base?

Obviously, the election ain’t over until the fat lady votes, but, for now, a ruthless and surefooted competitor has become weak and timid in the general election campaign.

If anything, Romney’s failure to bring the fight to Barack Obama suggests to many Republicans that he is not really one of them, that in his heart he is a squishy Massachusetts moderate who feels more at home with liberals than with conservatives.

Will that turn out conservative voters on November 6?

I suspect that someone in Romney’s barely competent brain trust has come up with the dimwitted idea that the candidate needs to show more empathy, that he has to show that he cares, that he has to become more likable.

We all know that Bill Clinton made empathy into legal political tender in American politics. The man who felt everyone’s pain--  when he was not feeling up the interns—has taught the electorate that they should vote for a candidate who can relate to them, who has been through what they have been through, who understands them and who feels their pain.

Of course, the idea comes to us from the therapy culture, so we should cast some doubt on it.

Look at this way. Let’s say you don’t feel well. Let’s say that you feel really, really sick and you go to the doctor. Do you want to hear that your physician feels your pain? Do you want to know that he feels badly about what is happening to you?

Will you be satisfied if your physician offers you a prescription for essence of empathy?

You want your physician to know what the problem is and to tell you how he is going to help  you solve it. You don’t want him to feel your pain; you want him to get rid of your pain.

It isn’t even a subtle distinction.

You want your physician to show that he knows what’s wrong, and to offer, with some optimism, a course of treatment that will solve the problem.

If your doctor is wrapped up in feeling your pain you are going to conclude that he does not know what is wrong with you and that the best he can offer is sympathy for your condition. Your empathetic physician will leave you feeling worse, because his empathy will feel like hopelessness.

Psychologically speaking, if you feel defeated and if your physician feels your pain at feeling defeated he will be less likely to be able to mobilize all of his knowledge to find a solution to your problem?

If you are feeling pessimistic, you want a physician who is optimistic about the help he can offer. If he cannot do that, find another physician.

Perhaps it is too late, but Romney should do what Newt Gingrich and many more savvy political operatives have been saying he should do. He should formulate a concept that describes the problem and that offers a solution that people can grasp.

After all, Franklin Roosevelt was not offering any specifics about the New Deal during the 1932 election campaign. In fact, he was was trashing Herbert Hoover as a big spending, big government socialist who had stifled free trade. In the New Deal FDR was offering a basic concept, the New Deal, that was positive, optimistic and forward looking.

Mitt Romney has a 59 point plan for how he would turn the economy around. If your physician listens to your complaints and offers you a pamphlet filled with ideas about how you might feel better, you are going to think that he does not know what he is doing.

You might not feel that he is shooting blanks, but you are likely to believe that he has a scattershot approach—he is filling the air with buckshot and hoping that some of it hits home.

Romney can say that Obama has done a bad job. Doubtless, it's true. But he has thus far failed to offer any indication that he will do a better job... not as a manager, but as a political leader.

There's nothing wrong with being a good manager. Compared to what we have now, it would be a vast improvement. Still, the office of the presidency involves political leadership as much as management.

He might begin by exercising some control over the narrative. There is little doubt that many members of the mainstream media have become stooges for the Obama campaign. That much is given; it should have been expected; the Romney campaign should have had an idea of how they would counter it.

Being defeated by the media does not make you look like a strong leader.

If you cannot cut through the media smokescreen with clear and articulate policy prescriptions, then you are not likely to be a very effective leader.

Weeks after the fact the Romney campaign has still not answered the best rationale for Obama’s candidacy: namely, Bill Clinton’s statement that no one could have done better than Obama.

Obviously, Clinton was saying that even he could not have done any better.

Someone high in the Romney campaign should have countered that Clinton himself knew how to work with a Republican congress. Obama does not. Clinton's defense of Obama is effectively empty verbiage.

Besides, if you are in pain and your physician’s nostrums have aggravated your condition, will you feel better to hear that no one could have done a better job?

Your pain is telling you to try something else. Who are you going to believe, your pain or Bill Clinton?

Clinton’s statement is neither true nor false. You cannot prove it and you cannot disprove it. We will never know what condition the nation’s economy would be in if someone else had been inaugurated president in January, 2009. We do not know what condition it would have been in if the government had stepped aside and let the markets work things out.

But, what would you have said if a Bill Clinton precursor had stood up in front of the Republican convention in 1932 and declared that no one could have done better than Herbert Hoover had done in the wake of the crash of 1929?

Would you find that persuasive? Would you rush out to vote for Herbert Hoover on the grounds that nothing more can be done to heal your pain?

The only response to Clinton's defense of Obama is that we have one good way to find out: we can try out a different president and a new approach. 

You do not, however, want to say that we should fire Obama. At a time when more and more people are losing their jobs and remaining unemployed for an unconscionably long period of time, you do not get up and say that you thrill to the prospect of firing someone, anyone. 

1 comment:

Bill O'Hara said...

The Dems argue that the economy could not be fixed. I would not choose someone for the job that thinks it can't be done.