The BBQ Test

There is an old chestnut in politics: An election will be won by the candidate with whom the voters would most like to go to a BBQ. Reagan over Carter. Papa Bush over Dukakis. Clinton over Papa Bush. Bush fils over Gore. The idea is that a successful candidate needs to come across as comfortable in his or her own skin, and someone with a common touch, someone who can, in Clinton’s famous phrase, “feel your pain.”

Mitt Romney has a problem with the BBQ test. He is so highly scripted and, in those few instances when he speaks extemporaneously, he says things your neighbor wouldn’t. For example, “corporations are people” and “want to bet $10,000?” Yesterday, in an attempt to establish something resembling empathy, he asserted that “I know what it’s like to worry whether you’re going to get fired. There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.” Of course, as the son of a multi-millionaire, even if Mr. Romney had been fired, the consequences from such an event would be different from what they would be for you or me. If he lost his job, that did not mean he was going to lose his health insurance or his house.

But, there is a bigger problem here. I think Romney was lying. At Bain Capital, which came under attack on other grounds yesterday, Romney started as CEO. I suppose if he had been an abysmal flop, the board could have fired him. But, he wasn’t a flop. And, boards rarely fire those they just hired, and never fire CEOs who are fabulously successful. So, when exactly was it that he was so worried about getting a pink slip? I suppose you could argue that, as his first term as governor of Massachusetts came to a close, he feared getting a pink slip from the voters and decided not to seek re-election. More likely, Romney was simply lying and knew it at the time. If you watch the video, as soon as those words pass his lips, he looks down at his feet. Classic liar look that.

The other candidates are not hands-down winners on the BBQ primary either. The President has a certain aloofness to him. Newt Gingrich really likes to be the smartest person in the room. Rick Santorum may be the most sanctimonious candidate in history. Ron Paul comes across as the doddering uncle you really try and avoid at a BBQ. Rick Perry may have a certain Texas charm, but little else.

Some of us, of course, would enjoy spending a BBQ talking to someone like Gingrich who may be a bit full of himself but is at least smart and conversant in ideas. I would have rather spent time with Mike Dukakis than Papa Bush and while I never went to a BBQ with Al Gore we did meet at a mutual friend’s birthday party and he was a thoroughly enjoyable conversationalist without being a “down-home” party guy like his 2000 opponent.

I am not a big fan of the BBQ test. In fact, it is a faux BBQ test and as regular readers will recall, I do not joke about BBQ: four months living in Little Rock taught me to react in horror when you are invited to a friend’s BBQ and they serve burgers. But, the problem with the electoral BBQ test is that very few of us would ever get to go to a BBQ with one of the candidates. Our sense of a candidate’s personality is filtered through the medium of television. Bill Clinton could famously caress a camera like it was a blonde with big hair. Al Gore couldn’t. Of course, a television camera is a large inanimate object, so the inability to treat the thing like a person is an instinct properly described as humane.

Furthermore, given the intellectual demands placed upon the occupant of the Oval Office, why would we want someone whose primary qualifications are a certain affability and capacity for empathy? I want someone with analytic skills, someone with a sense of history and its complicatedness, someone with a cool head and a steady hand. Politically, it helps if they have the common touch, but we do not want a common person in the White House, do we? FDR had a common touch even though he was a patrician. Truman was about the closest to a “common man” we had as president in the 20th century, a man from humble origins and the only 20th century president who did not attend college, but he was far from common, deeply read in history, especially military history, and that learning gave him a keen perspective on world affairs.

I do not care if the next president can “feel my pain” so much as I care that he can fix the problems that cause the pain. I hope the next president is affable primarily because one of President Obama’s failings has been his inability to work with Congress and members of Congress resent the fact that he has not paid enough attention to them socially, not had them over for drinks and casual encounters. But, worse than a president with an affability deficit is one like Romney who strikes me as a poseur. Maybe it is something in the water in Boston, but I think Romney suffers from the same problem that afflicted John Kerry. You watch them and you have the sensation that when you peel away the layers of the onion, and reach into the depth of their souls, what they really, really care about is getting the camera angle right or the right table at the Occidental. Of course, I can’t afford the Occidental, and if either Kerry or Romney is paying I will go with them just for the food. I hope they have good BBQ.

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