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What’s the matter with Romney?

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As he cruises toward the GOP nomination Mitt Romney can’t seem to stop saying things that, besides being intellectually dubious and morally offensive, are almost certainly going to be damaging to his presidential aspirations:

Romney has made the “class envy” trope central to his message. In his New Hampshire victory speech Romney whined that President Obama “divides us with the bitter politics of envy.”

Romney complained to on Wednesday’s Today show, “Everywhere [President Obama] goes we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It’s a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach and I think it will fail.” In maximum Thurston Howell III mode, Romney allowed, “I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms.” But the president is talking about it in public!

How uncouth. Doesn’t Obama know that it’s always best to discuss the unwashed masses over martinis at the gentlemen’s club?

Although Romney doesn’t drink martinis, over the past year or so he’s made a number of remarks that make him sound like a caricature of a country club Republican. Given that Romney is clearly good at electoral politics — giving Ted Kennedy a scare in 1994, getting elected governor of Massachusetts a few years later, and winning the GOP presidential nomination this year isn’t a bad track record for someone who didn’t get involved in electoral politics until his mid-40s — these remarks seem quite mysterious. (When you make Newt Gingrich sound like the voice of reason on an issue you may just have moved a tad too far to the right).

In addition, one would think that Romney — a child of pretty much the most privileged background it’s possible to imagine — would be especially sensitive to charges that he doesn’t understand that financial success and failure in America are not doled out to individuals strictly on the basis of personal merit. Here, the contrast with George W. Bush is instructive: To all appearances Romney is both much smarter and much more intellectually curious than Bush the lesser, yet Dubya at least had enough common sense to burble some banalities about “compassionate conservatism” rather than, as Romney has, throwing an unintentional spotlight on his own spectacularly privileged biography.

Perhaps one clue to Romney’s remarkably tin ear when it comes to his unconditional support for the excesses of our plutocracy can be found in this claim, from the biographical section of his Wikipedia entry: “[Romney] attended Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, a private boys preparatory school of the classic mold where he was the lone Mormon and where many students came from even more privileged backgrounds.” On one level this quote, which has three supporting citations, is simply bizarre. While at Cranbrook, Romney was the son of an extremely wealthy man who was also a major media celebrity (among many other things George Romney was the subject of a Time magazine cover story), not to mention the governor of the state in which Mitt’s high school was located. There were twelve million high school students in America in the early 1960s, and it’s plausible that if one were ranking those students on the basis of their relative socio-economic status, Mitt Romney might have quite literally have finished first.

All this is very puzzling, given that Romney’s aggressive refusal to make any concession to the tropes of noblesse oblige sounds very much like the kind of attitude that many self-made man who grew up in socially marginal circumstances takes on after he’s made it big (Ironically, George Romney, who really was a self-made man from a genuinely marginal social background, had a solicitude for the less fortunate that by comparison to his son seems in retrospect almost communistic).

Mitt Romney’s politically inopportune embrace of the idea that the only reason America isn’t quite yet a perfect meritocracy is because of government interference with the miracle of the free enterprise system requires, I think, some sort of at least partially psychological explanation, which will be rooted, as such explanations are, in his personal biography. And I suspect — I am putting this forward in the most tentative way — that such an investigation might end up focusing on the role that Mormonism and his apparently genuine embrace of his Mormon identity have played in Romney’s life. Instead of playing the role of the generous quasi-aristocrat, which even a egotistical blockhead like Dubya was able to more or less pull off, there is an air of the perpetually bitter outsider about Mitt Romney — of the parvenu who is at some level not quite certain that his exalted status will ever be fully acknowledged by those whose approval he most craves.

Or who knows, maybe he’s just another endlessly entitled rich guy. But it’s a question that will be worth exploring for at least the next ten months.

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