The Real Romney

In new biography, Mitt’s anti-populist views shine through

The Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman have provided a genuine service with the publication of The Real Romney. After reading through the book I have only one question left for the authors: who is the real Mitt Romney?

This is not a critique of Kranish and Helman’s reporting but a commentary on the opacity of their subject. One of the aspects of Romney’s character that struck me is his expression of obligation to help his country, at least in great part a legacy of the career of his father: former CEO of American Motors, Michigan governor, and Republican presidential candidate George Romney. Mitt Romney recalls his father’s objective:  “It was more like he was on a great mission with American Motors to build innovative cars so that people could save money and fuel, and have better lives. Work was never just a way to make a buck to my dad. There was a calling and purpose to it. It was about making life better for people.”

The clear account of the father’s commitment is not matched by an equally revealing expression of what moves the son. Perhaps a matching statement comes in his reflection of what he learned from his 2008 campaign — that he needed to be known for “the things that really motivate you.” To Mitt that would be “to focus my campaign on the economy and getting the economy right and creating jobs.” Still, Romney struggles with the reproach that he helped destroy as many jobs as he helped to create when he headed Bain Capital, an issue that has been raised against him in every campaign since he took on Ted Kennedy in 1994.

Bain is central to Romney’s claim to executive brilliance. But explaining his success at an elite private equity firm is not always easy. On the one hand he touts his outstanding record at Bain; there is no question that he was a prosperous business leader.  On the other hand he has struggled to connect with average folk by describing his early career as an entry level job just out of school, or his founding of Bain Capital as the fulfillment of the dream to found his own business. But as Kranish and Helman write, Romney excelled academically in a joint program at Harvard that brought him both an MBA and a law degree. He was among the elite of the elite, heavily courted by employers. And when Bill Bain proposed to Romney that he head a risky new venture that became Bain Capital, Romney at first declined. He was already comfortable and he would have to risk some of his own capital and his reputation. The future governor then negotiated a package that would protect him. Kranish and Helman reveal:  “’So,’ Bain explained, ‘there was no professional or financial risk.’”

It is also revealing that when the Romney team gathered to plot the 2008 campaign they identified his biggest challenges as the “three M’s:  Mormon, millionaire, Massachusetts.”  Yet with another four years to prepare, the three M’s continue to bedevil Romney. His religion assuredly cost him among Iowa and South Carolina evangelical voters, though the problem is less acute than it was in 2008 and should abate if he carries the nomination.  Newt Gingrich loves to pillory Massachusetts, but whereas the Romney of 2008 was the first to disparage his home state, this time he has defended our health care law, his biggest achievement as governor — but a cancer to many Republicans.  Health care could have whipsawed him. His solution of an individual mandate was a conservative solution when he proposed it as governor but his party has moved far to the right since then.

It is odd that “M” for millionaire has become the most challenging of the three M’s. This is the Republican Party, after all. But Gingrich has demagogically exploited the populist strain among lesser educated values voters. Romney has counterattacked that these are the sort of anti-capitalist messages to be expected by Obama and his socialist pals, not something fit for a Republican nominating process. Still, Romney couldn’t think ahead that an investment account in the Cayman Islands and a Swiss bank account might suggest distance from the average American? He couldn’t anticipate that he’d be forced to release his tax returns?

One consistent criticism of Romney as a public figure is that he lacks commitment and passion. Near the end of The Real Romney, as he meets with Wall Street titans who had pledged to raise money for his 2012 run, Romney finally shows some fire in attacking the sort of populism Gingrich would come to use against him:  “The populism I’m referring to is, if you will, demonizing certain members of society: going after businesspeople, going after Wall Street, going after people who are highly educated, people who are CEOs.”

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
So perhaps my question, “Who is the real Romney?” has at least partially been answered.

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.