By Michael Gerson
WASHINGTON — Both of the leading Republican candidates have an authenticity problem — they possess too much of it.
Rick Santorum is an authentic social conservative who seems to believe that the nation can be argued into moral self-improvement. It is the high calling of a Jesuit high-school teacher but is less appealing in a presidential contender.
Mitt Romney is an authentic rich person. Not that there is anything wrong with that. America’s capacious tolerance should extend even to the wealthy, who have the added challenge of trying to fit through a needle’s eye.
Romney’s wealth is not ill gotten. His problem is political. He talks about money as though engaged in a discussion with his stockbroker. So $374,000 from paid speeches is “not very much.” He is “not concerned about the very poor,” on the assumption that the safety net is enough for them. His wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs.” While not a racing enthusiast himself, Romney has “some great friends that are NASCAR team owners.”
A single gaffe is a political flesh wound. A series of gaffes that confirm a damaging stereotype is potentially fatal.
These blunders not only reinforce a traditional Republican weakness, they threaten to diminish a large Republican advantage — Barack Obama’s dramatic disconnect with blue-collar whites. The candidate who talked of small-town Americans as clinging “to guns or religion” lost white working-class voters by 18 points in 2008. In 2010, congressional Democrats lost the same group by 30 points. A similarly dismal performance by Obama in 2012 would open vast blue portions of the electoral map to Republican raids.
Romney may be the only candidate capable of herding working-class voters back toward the president. Throughout the primaries, Romney has led among college-educated whites and underperformed among voters without college degrees. Obama’s approval among working-class voters, while still poor, has been trending upward.
Romney’s wealth problem, while serious, is not insoluble. But the alternative to his upper crust authenticity is not populist inauthenticity. When he jokes with voters that he is currently “unemployed,” or recalls “a couple of times when I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip,” he compounds his error. For many Americans, a pink slip means turning to a food pantry. Romney, presumably, would have other options. There are few things more offensive than patronizing empathy.
Incapable of changing his economic tribe, Romney will need to make the best of his background. If Americans don’t want a successful management consultant as president, he stands little chance. But a good case can be made for an economic manager after a period of disappointing economic performance and spectacular fiscal irresponsibility. In a stagnant economy, the promotion of economic growth and opportunity is not only a technocratic goal; it is a moral cause.
During the general election campaign, Romney will also need to direct some of his economic attention to the specific needs of struggling Americans, not just to the overall health of the economy. His more conservative advisers may dismiss this as pandering — proving they know little of presidential politics. Policy proposals are symbols of a candidate’s values and priorities. Romney will have to say something about improving failed schools, encouraging college attendance or updating job training efforts — really about anything that shows a practical concern for economic mobility.
But even good policy has limits. Voters need to know that Romney has at least witnessed the struggles he has not shared. When another wealthy politician, Robert F. Kennedy, toured Appalachia a week before his presidential announcement, Americans understood that he had met people and seen images that don’t leave a man unchanged. Romney must give some evidence — visiting, say, a low-income health clinic or a gang-occupied school — that his hand has touched, that his retina has registered, the hurt and hardship of another America.
“For the fortunate among us,” said RFK, “there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. … The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike. … Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American society.”
If Romney can demonstrate this commitment — personally and authentically — he may yet become president of the United States.
Michael Gerson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.