Mitt, my old governor Mitt, I’m begging you to sit back, pour yourself a root beer, and consider something before you take the stage tonight for the most important 90 minutes of your political life.
Think about the hundreds and sometimes thousands of people you’ve seen just about every day for the last couple of years. No, Mitt, not your advisers and consultants. No again, not the multimillionaire contributors you’ve shared crab cakes with in the Hamptons and Palm Beach. This is exactly the problem.
Voters, Mitt. The voters. OK, what’s with the blank stare?
You know, all those people who filled school auditoriums in little towns outside Des Moines on cold winter nights, or gathered on farm fields in New Hampshire to watch you speak, or greeted you in Las Vegas neighborhoods where every other home seemed to be facing foreclosure. You remember them, right? Sort of? A little bit? No?
This is exactly what I feared after that devastating tape was revealed. You’re right, you never said you wouldn’t govern on behalf of all Americans. But the way that you characterized the 47 percent as believing they are “victims” unwilling to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” that showed you haven’t learned a thing in your less-than-grand pursuit of the presidency.
Which gets to the guts of the matter on this day of the first presidential debate, a veritable break-or-make moment for you: It’s not your command of issues that has turned people off, or even your chronic opportunism. It’s your complete and total lack of empathy for a class of people that is experiencing a whole lot of fear and pain. And that, to the best of your ability, needs to change — fast.
This has always been your problem. I said as much when you ran for governor in 2002 and you used to work a campaign event like a zombie desperate for some private time. “How are you. How are yooouuu.” That’s how you greeted one supporter after the next, never making eye contact or listening to the response.
I hoped that would change when you ran for the White House. A presidential campaign is the grandest of pursuits, an honor available to only a rare few — those who have the money or the ability to convince other people to fund it. You had both.
Well run, a presidential campaign offers singular insight into the nation’s dreams and needs, guiding the candidate from the vastness of the Great Plains to the richness of the Deep South to the free-spiritedness of America’s West. You meet miners in West Virginia, factory workers in Detroit, and farmers in the big block states that are the nation’s spine.
People share with you their quietest hopes and their deepest concerns. They tell you what they want for themselves, their families, their futures. Every one of these moments is a brush stroke in a vivid portrait of America that only the candidates have the privilege to see.
But here’s the fear: You were so busy talking, or clicking through PowerPoints, or pushing tax breaks for rich friends, that you never really heard anything that anyone without a campaign contribution ever said. You didn’t venture enough from the comforts of your inner circle. And that, my former governor, is the ultimate shame of your campaign — you, the same man at the end as when you began.
You now have three debates and roughly a month not just to think about where you’ve been, but to somehow feel it, then convey it.
This assumes you’ve learned something on this long and turbulent journey, about yourself and your country, the nagging doubt over your campaign.