Mitt Romney’s ‘Authenticity’ ‘Problem’

Is Mitt Romney “authentic"? Does it hurt him? Does it even matter? Perhaps the authenticity problem lies not with Mitt, but with his culture, and ours.

Mitt Romney

 

Jonah Goldberg’s syndicated Tribune column “Romney’s Authenticity Problem” has stuck in my craw for a few days, like a cold sore that I can’t take care of but can’t ignore. I think it’s this:

Romney’s claim that he’s just a businessman called to serve – Cincinnatus laying down his PowerPoint – is nonsense. Romney, the son of a politician, has been running for office, holding office or thinking about running for office for more than two decades. “Just level with the American people,” Gingrich growled. “You’ve been running … at least since the 1990s.”

For some reason Romney can’t do that. Or at least it seems like he can’t. His authentic inauthenticity problem isn’t going away.

It’s not the sentiment; Romney has been flopsweating presidential ambition since he stepped down as governor and national office for long before that. It’s that word “authenticity.” Luckily, the great local historian of the conservative movement, Rick Perlstein, just kicked off his new Rolling Stone series with a short, compelling psychobiography of Mitt Romney in relationship to his famous father that helps put it in context:

The truth was a dull weapon to take into a knife fight with Richard Nixon – who kicked Romney’s ass with 79 percent of the vote. When people call his son the “Rombot,” think about that: Mitt learned at an impressionable age that in politics, authenticity kills. Heeding the lesson of his father’s fall, he became a virtual parody of an inauthentic politician. In 1994 he ran for senate to Ted Kennedy’s left on gay rights; as governor, of course, he installed the dreaded individual mandate into Massachusetts’ healthcare system. Then he raced to the right to run for president.

He’s still inauthentic – but with, I think, an exception. Every time he opens his mouth on the subject of capitalism, he says what he sincerely believes, which happens to fit neatly with present-day Republican ideology: that rich people deserve every penny they have, and if people complain about anything rich people do, it’s only because they’re envious.

Perlstein uses the word to describe Romney’s conscientious-capitalist father and his devotion to unwavering political principles, in contrast with his son’s, um, fluid ones. This sheds some light on why Romney’s authenticity problem may not be a problem, per se, in the context of the current GOP field. Jon Huntsman got killed, in part, because of his open, unwavering moderation; Santorum and Paul, Romney’s most serious opponents, face something of a ceiling because of their open, unwavering immoderation. Romney’s teflon ideology may not be a strength, but it’s not exactly a liability in a divided party.

Even still, Perlstein’s use of the word authentic trips me up. It’s appropriate in the sense of authenticity representing a devotion to a set of moral or ideological principles, but another way of reading the word is this:

In keeping my promise I act in accord with duty; and if I keep it because it is my duty, I also act morally (according to Kant) because I am acting for the sake of duty. But existentially there is still a further evaluation to be made. My moral act is inauthentic if, in keeping my promise for the sake of duty, I do so because that is what “one” does (what “moral people” do).

By Perlstein’s reading, Romney’s chameleon-like political persona was forged early in his life: “Then, just over a year later, [George Romney] was humiliated with a suddenness and intensity unprecedented in modern American political history (of which more below). His son was 19 years old. What makes Mitt – né Willard – Romney, run? Much, I think, can be understood via that specific trauma.” Further, it forged a man whose ideology was winning. And that happened to coincide with a shift in the business world from postwar American capitalism to contemporary American capitalism: “his vision of how capitalism should work was in every particular the exact opposite of the one pushed by the vulture capitalist he sired.”

And the younger Romney was recently evaluated on just those terms by Steve Rattner, a private-equity manager turned Obama auto czar:

I have no idea whether Bain Capital created 100,000 net new jobs, and I think Romney was silly to even engage in that debate. What we know for certain is that Bain Capital more than fulfilled its responsibility to a gaggle of investors, who were mostly foundations, endowments, pension funds and the like.

[snip]

Let’s be sure to keep these few problem children in perspective. During the Romney years, Bain made 77 significant investments — and a number of smaller ones. It made billions for worthy investors and, yes, doubtless created some incalculable number of net new jobs for the U.S. economy.

The job creation of Romney’s business investments is secondary; his duty was return on investment—winning—and the effects on employment flow naturally from that. It’s far different from his father, whom Perlstein calls “the poster child for the antiquated notion that corporations have multiple stakeholders,” but utterly representative of his time and place.

He’s a man of his era, whose life story and business career reflect both his family and the greater political and economic currents that surrounded him as he came of age. As such, I have trouble thinking of him as inauthentic. If anything, it’s not Mitt Romney with the authenticity problem—it’s us.

 

Photograph: nmfbihop (CC by 2.0)

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