Sunday, November 18, 2012

Maybe Mitt Wasn't Long Term Material

Maybe Mitt Wasn’t Long Term Material

In the National Gallery in Washington hangs one of my favorite paintings, Gilbert Stuart’s The Skater.  Stuart, who is better known for his “dollar-bill” George Washington, was in London in 1782 when the Scotsman William Grant, later a Member of Parliament and distinguished jurist and politician, visited his studio.  Grant apparently observed that the day was better for skating than sitting, so the two headed off to Hyde Park.  Later that afternoon, they returned to the studio, and Stuart hatched the idea of doing a standing portrait (unusual in that day).  The resulting portrait, with a young, vigorous, red-from-the-cold-faced Grant, his arms crossed and looking sideways over his left shoulder, placed on dull and icy background, jumps off the canvass at you.  The Skater was unsigned, and, a century later, it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, where there was a debate over its authorship.  The Daily Telegraph attributed it to the English painter George Romney (really, life does imitate art), but The Art Journal disagreed “A more graceful and manly figure was surely never painted by an English artist, and if Gainsborough were that artist this would be his masterpiece.”  Eventually, Stuart was properly credited.

The other day, I received an email from a friend and reader that reminded me of The Skater, and set me to wondering about the gender gap.   She mentioned that she was planning a weekend with an old boyfriend, and I asked if it were serious.  No,  she liked him a lot, but “he wasn’t long term material.”

At that point, I thought it wise not to ask whether he was “graceful and manly.”  I’ve seen the Cheerios “Shut up Steve” ad and otherwise been happily married for twenty-five years and generally understand the value of silence. But what she said stuck in my mind, and after Mitt made his now infamous “gift” remarks, I wondered if women just had a better sense of what made Mitt Romney tick, and saw something they didn’t like.  Was Barack Obama better Long Term Material than Mitt Romney?

Larry Sabato, of the University of Virgina’s Center For Politics, analyzed some of the election results in his November 15, 2012 Crystal Ball.  Using New York Times Exit Polling data, he created a chart showing voting by gender going back to 1972, when Richard Nixon crushed George McGovern.  The first two election years, 1972 and 1976, shows no appreciable gender gap.  But, with the nomination in 1980 of Ronald Reagan and the ascendance of the modern conservative movement, men were persistently and quite strikingly more Republican than women.  2012 marked the 9th consecutive election that the Democratic candidate did not crack 50% among men, and in only two elections (Clinton in 1992 and Obama in 2008) did the Democrat even get a plurality.  By contrast, women have decisively broke Democratic in the last six elections.  In 2012, women supported Obama by 55 to 44, while men went for Romney 52-45.  

Why?  Perhaps women are more turned off by the angry edge to contemporary Republican politics. Women are community builders, and this election, in particular, was ugly, with a lot of dark undercurrents.  The GOP, apparently confident in their victory, and perhaps looking to lay down markers for a mandate, spent so much time telling so many people they didn’t want their support that they might truly have achieved an unwanted success.  People believed them.  And voted Democratic.

So, when Mitt made his charming assertion to his big donors that Obama gave “gifts” to buy the election, he was only reinforcing a point that many Obama supporters already suspected.  Much has been made of Obama’s turnout machine micro-targeting possible voters, but those people were motivated, in part, because Romney and the GOP were so open in their disdain.  When you run off a list of all those folk Romney didn’t feel were his kind (mainly, people less fortunate than him and Latinos) and add in everyone else that the national Republican party didn’t care for (any woman who wanted a say in procreation, gays, people who believe in science, etc.) there were, shall we say, a lot of marketing opportunities. 

Perversely, Romney’s post election gaffe is actually a windfall for the GOP, since it allows party spokesman to quickly and ruthlessly cut Romney out of the herd.  Some of this is strictly self-protection: while many leading Republicans agree completely with the substance of Romney’s comments to his high-rolling contributors, they also recognize that the “class warfare” albatross they tried to hang around Mr. Obama’s neck just didn’t stick.  Some, however, is pure animus.  It is astounding how few Republicans really like Romney.   Long time GOP consultant Ed Rogers, who had spent his summer and early fall extolling Romney, was quoted in the Washington Post: “There is no Romney wing in the party that he needs to address. He never developed an emotional foothold within the GOP so he can exit the stage anytime and no one will mourn.”. 

Romney’s comments did, however, clarify for me something I found puzzling from the beginning of the primaries: Why did Romney run away from his past successes and his past positions? The moderate Massachusetts Governor and Olympics fixer Mitt Romney, I thought, would have had the greatest chance of success against Obama.  Why did he tack right so hard, and so harshly, on so many issues?  I realize that he thought he needed to prove his bona fides, but no one really believed him anyway, and it just gave him the appearance of inconstancy.  Why wasn’t Mitt Mitt?

The answer, I suppose, was implicit in his “gift” comments to his friends.  Mitt was Mitt.  He really belives that America is divided up into two groups; the worthy, meaning people like him and his major contributors, and the inferior, pretty much everyone else.  Ideas and positions, whether they relate to foreign or domestic policy, are merely things to be packaged (and repackaged) to win.  

After the Republican Convention I thought that Ann Romney had done a wonderful job of humanizing her husband, of sending the implicit message that she had done well with Mitt, that, on top of being Presidential and graceful and manly he was also “Long Term Material.”  And, for a time, aided by the first debate, the gender gap essentially disappeared in the polling.

But, in the end, the electorate, led by women voters, decided otherwise, and apparently correctly. They knew something was missing, and maybe that was heart.

Gilbert Stuart’s subject, William Grant, never married. Perhaps that’s because a canvass, no matter how vividly painted, is not a substitute for human feelings.

The same is true with an etch-a-sketch.  When you shake it, all you get is a blank screen.