Did you ever wonder how Mitt Romney can continue to put his foot in his mouth, the meme of his campaign now being “he can’t connect with real people”?
Think about your own experience with bosses and consider what Romney’s relationship with his staff must be like.
I know an officeholder who was noted for his political skills, his manipulation of the press, and his ability to get media coverage for his initiatives. He never went to a public meeting, press conference, or an interview without sitting down with his senior staff. He was then asked the most awkward, insulting, and rude questions the staff could think up. If his answers were dubbed incomplete or evasive or non-responsive, the question was asked again. And again, if necessary. It wasn’t a matter of getting the “spin” right, it was about making the officeholder say what he meant to say in the clearest manner possible and avoid unfortunate language. In the political vernacular it was about avoiding the dreaded “walk back” or an admission of having “misspoke.”
The officeholder never got a question as bad or rude or “gotcha” as the ones he had already dealt with in his staff meeting.
I have also worked for bosses over the years that made it clear to the staff that they would brook no dissent. Not just awkward questions, but no questions at all. I know another officeholder who liked things calm, soothing, and non-confrontational. He would get depressed by negativity. He would then go out in public and get his tongue twisted and say things he didn’t intend and get into trouble.
Romney has been an executive: in business, at the Olympics, and as a governor. One gets the impression that he isn’t getting good prep before he goes out to talk to the public. But I suspect it’s his fault. Does he strike you as the kind of guy who would welcome impertinence from his staff? Telling him the language he was about to use was stupid? Giving him suggestions on “how” to say what he means as opposed to stumbling into embarrassing gaffes, i.e., I’m not worried about the very poor, I like to fire people, my wife has a couple of Cadillacs, etc. Does he have anyone who can veto a plan to make a major speech to 1,200 people in a 65,000-seat football stadium?
Why does this matter? Because being president is a hard job. There is no one who has the intelligence and skill to know everything about all the decisions a president has to make. You have to be able to listen to trusted advisers: your foreign policy or intelligence team; the military; domestic policy advisers. Politics is also the art of building consensus to execute your agenda. It requires clear language, and practice, to convey the message.
The president’s management style must be conducive to reaching the best solutions—to get the widest variety of opinions possible. Then be able to sell those solutions to Congress and the public.
Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have spent a lot of time in the Congress, with almost daily questioning, debate, and making frequent speeches. On the one hand this enables them to think on their feet and to handle debate questions. But it also gives them a tendency to spout off grandiose ideas or wacky positions, things they have been used to doing hanging around the world’s greatest debating society when no one but C-SPAN was paying attention.
The irony is that Romney, by training, would seem to be a better choice to be chief executive. Barack Obama is the first president to go to the office directly from Congress since John Kennedy. We seem to prefer presidents who have been governors.
I suppose the point here is that during Romney’s campaign we have not heard of anyone who has the attitude, stature or political acumen of a James Carville, Karl Rove, or David Axelrod. Where is the person who can tell the hotshot executive that he has a tin ear and to suggest he practice what he wants to say before he says it?