Romney's authenticity problem: What can he do to prove he's genuine?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 12 2011 6:28 PM

One Hundred Percent Pure Romney

Mitt Romney tries, again, to convince voters that he's authentic.

Mitt Romney. Click image to expand.

Mitt Romney is no doctor, but on Thursday he appeared at the University of Michigan's Cardiovascular Center in an attempt to perform the first live separation of conjoined twins: Mitt Romney the presidential candidate and Mitt Romney the Massachusetts governor. In a speech that included PowerPoint slides, Romney explained why he was proud of the health care plan he passed in Massachusetts—but also why it would be wrong for the entire country.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

It is a difficult procedure. The policy terrain is a complex, requiring the use of terms such as free riders, co-insurance, and purchasing alliances. But the political terrain may be even more complicated. Romney was trying to fix a political problem that dogged his last campaign: the view among some voters that he lacks a core, that he bends too easily to the political winds.

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In 2008, the so-called authenticity problem dogged him over his switchback positions on social issues such as abortion. Now it's health care. Where does the Mitt Romney who signed health care reform in Massachusetts with an individual mandate end, and where does the one denouncing President Obama's health care reform with an individual mandate begin?

On Thursday, Romney made several claims for his authenticity. He said people had encouraged him to run away from his record as governor but that he would not. "It wouldn't be honest," Romney said. "I did what I believed was right for the people of my state." Later, as he laid out his national plan, he said it was like the one he proposed in 2008. "I am not adjusting the plan to reflect the political sentiment."

The authenticity injection will be a monumental task for Romney. This conclusion does not require any grand judgments about the details of his health care plan or his genuineness. It simply requires a look at his daily schedule. To be a presidential candidate is to spend your day—morning to dusk—engaged in activities that are inauthentic.

Searching for authenticity in politics is like looking for butter in margarine. Yet as we head into a presidential year, journalists and voters once again will take bread in hand, spread on the counterfeit, and wonder why it doesn't taste fresh.

Not all authenticity is the same, of course. Voters seem to tolerate a certain amount of situational inauthenticity. (If they didn't, we wouldn't have politicians.) But emotional authenticity—what you're "really" like as a person—or intellectual authenticity—what you really believe in—matter a lot more to voters. The problem is that if voters have doubts about those kinds of authenticity, there are few instances in which a candidate can give voters a window into those areas to reassure them. There just aren't that many opportunities, because the day-to-day act of politics is so inauthentic.

The job of a politician is to be inauthentic in rooms with people from whom you wish to collect moneyto get handed a sheet of names to thank people sincerely you've only just met. You must feign friendship and interest in local television hosts and even more mind-bending faux enthusiasm for the national television hosts whom you don't particularly like. You don't dare snub a long-winded or pushy voter. You cannot have a bad day in public for fear of a YouTube moment. You have to drink beverages and eat food you don't like. You hardly ever get to sleep in your own bed.

It's very hard to come across as authentic when you are draped each day in all this hokum. Romney was at cross purposes a little Thursday. He spoke without a tie—which, at least since the secret plot known as Casual Friday was instituted—is supposed to convey a relaxed style. At the same time he used PowerPoint slides, which work against that clubhouse feeling.

Substantively, Romney was also confusing. When Romney makes the case for what worked in Massachusetts, the uninitiated are likely to wonder why such a success shouldn't be a national model—like the one President Obama signed. Democratic spokesman Brad Woodhouse joked in a tweet to his colleague Hari Sevugan "Romney is making a great case for national health reform. Book him on cable tonight?"

Romney invoked the principle of federalism, saying that governors have more leeway in many ways than presidents because states are the "Laboratories of Democracy."  But conservatives most likely to buy that argument have trouble with him for other reasons. They don't like that his Massachusetts plan included a mandate to force people to buy insurance. The speech was barely over before Rick Santorum issued a statement decrying "both Romneycare and Obamacare" because they "infringe upon individual freedom." Avik Roy writing in the National Review, said "Mitt Romney just gave a more articulate defense of Obamacare than President Obama ever has." The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, didn't even wait for the speech, publishing a full-throated attack on Romney and his health care plan on Thursday morning.

All of this would make even the most confident fellow a little halting and nervous. That's what Romney looked like at times as he looked up at his Powerpoint slides from behind the lectern and made tentative jokes. It looked very authentic.

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