Mitt Romney has been running a vast focus group for months. He says that almost every day during his campaign he has secretly sat down with three or four families who are being hurt by Obama’s economy to learn what their lives are like. He's been on the road for a long time, which means he must have met hundreds of families. Since the whole business happens on the QT, you can imagine the candidate suddenly appearing from behind the detergent display at the all-night Target to get the views of the startled Anderson family.
That Romney was having so many secret meetings was a surprise to nearly everyone who has covered him. Where does he find the time? But more puzzling is that he seems to show so little return for his investment. When Romney was trying to show that he was in touch with the economic concerns of women voters, he referred to his wife. “My wife has the occasion, as you know, to campaign on her own and also with me,” Romney told newspaper editors, “and she reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy.” Given that he's held so many meetings with families, you'd think his pockets would be laden with ready anecdotes. We all know what Bill Clinton would do. (And we'd still be listening well past dinnertime.)
Romney is trying to connect with the middle class to show that he gets it. The rap is that he doesn't know what regular people are going through, so there's no way he can understand how his policies would change their lives. To combat this, Romney started last Friday to open his campaign speeches with rapid-fire anecdotes about his interactions with those who are in financial straits. At a Cleveland town hall Monday, he told the story of five different voters in short order—the barber, the small-business owner whose employee slept in her house, the couple who took out a loan to have a second child, the couple with the duplexes who lost their value, and the woman he met on the rope line in Norfolk. "It touches your heart," he said. "I know a lot of people are struggling. I am doing my best to help them." Later, at a fundraiser he told the story of a veterinarian who was losing business. “I guess even the animals are suffering in the Obama economy.”
The gambit behind these stories is obvious enough: to show Gov. Romney cares. On Saturday, President Obama said that Romney learned the wrong lessons from his years in business. Obama used an anecdote about Romney's off-key response to a woman distressed over her economic condition as proof. These stories Romney is now telling are anecdotal antidotes to that charge.
By keeping the regular people from the media, Romney can tell their stories on his own terms. You can't blame him. Public roundtables devolve into spectacles where the candidate has to empathize for the camera or be labeled a brute or out of touch. The face-twisting and lip-biting required are embarrassing for everyone. Under the public-empathy spotlight, Obama had to pretend a woman was going to get her government job back, which he knew was unlikely. Plus, any civilian who talks to a candidate gets the full treatment by the press or the opposing political party. Why subject a private citizen to that?
What the governor should be more candid about, though, is what he learns from these sojourns into the middle class. Do these meetings reaffirm his pre-existing views about the economy or does he learn something new? Is he challenged at all? When Barack Obama ran for president, he made a showy trip to Iraq. He wore swish sunglasses and sat next to Gen. Petraeus on helicopter flights. At the end of his trip, he told us almost nothing of what he'd learned. He explored none of the complexities of what he saw on the ground, and he offered us no insight into how his pre-existing ideas changed and shifted once he saw things firsthand. This was extraordinary because we knew—and have come to know even more since then—that Barack Obama has lots of thoughts about things. (Don't even get him started on "The Waste Land.")
Romney could surely give us some insight, given how much time he has spent with the hard-pressed. This isn't just about showing empathy. Romney is running as a person whose business career is supposed to make him wise about how to jumpstart a weak economy. We've never had a president from the world of finance. People are suspicious about how that experience might affect their lives. Even the last president from the business world, George W. Bush, had a skeptical view of financiers from his days in Midland, Texas: "They'll buy you or sell you, depending upon if it's in their interest."
The political and governing challenge for Mitt Romney is how he adapts his businessman's worldview to the real world he faces. He's no longer shrinking payrolls to meet the bottom line. He has to think about the people who are being crunched by his decisions. Sometimes he'll have to ignore the pain that some will suffer for the larger good. That is what presidents do. It's why they deserve a vacation now and again. The job is hard. And sometimes he'll have to know when to tweak something or change his priorities to help people who are really hurting.
Romney says he is running to help the middle class and its distraught members whose faces appear in his campaign ads. So there's got to be some benefit to all of these meetings beyond the production of new campaign propaganda about how they are hurting. Fine, keep the meetings secret, but tell us what he's learned and how his thinking has evolved. He wouldn't want to just use these good people as props to beat up the president. They've suffered enough.