Monday, August 06, 2007

Mitt Romney gains new appreciation for the political genius of Bill Clinton

So, guy running for President walks into a diner in New Hampshire and winds up in an argument with a waitress over health care.

Guy happens to have been governor of the next state over and he brags about the great health insurance plan that got implemented down there while he was in office.

Waitress says that's all well and good for the folks in that state, but how's he going to see the rest of us in all the other states get the same benefits? And the guy doesn't have a good answer.

Because the guy's a Republican and the state he was governor of is Massachusetts and no Republican's going to win his party's nomination by promising to turn the whole country into a version of Taxachusetts.

Fact is, the guy's whole campaign platform to date can be pretty much summed up like this: "Folks, those four years I was governor? I was kidding!"

Still, Mitt Romney seems to have done a pretty good job of it, talking to an actual voter who has no reason to like him or trust him or play along with his make believe Man of the People moment.

But maybe the TV reporter just left it out and Romney did ask the waitress the questions he should have asked her.

If the exchange went exactly this way though, Romney has a lot of work to do before he comes close to matching Bill Clinton's talent for talking to people:

The waitress then explained that she has two daughters with health problems and that one was recently taken out of school and no longer has health care.

"Well, one of the things I think is important to do... is to find a way to get health insurance to all of our citizens," Romney said.

Think Bill "I feel your pain" Clinton wouldn't have stopped things right there to ask what her daughters' health problems are and how old they are and how the one daughter's coping with being out of school and how the waitress herself is coping and whether or not the daughter's under a doctor's care, health insurance or no health insurance?

Like I said, maybe the reporter left it out, but Romney appears to have changed the subject back to himself and his Presidential ambitions awfully fast.

One of my all-time favorite Saturday Night Live skits was one that ran just after Clinton was elected and starred Phil Hartman as Clinton. In it Clinton shows up at a McDonald's after jogging and as he goes from table to table talking to the diners about their problems and his plans as President he's stealing fries from their trays, sips from their shakes, bites from their burgers.

Hartman was brilliant as Clinton, generally, but this skit was inspired. It got at Clinton's weaknesses, his self-indulgences and his vanities, but it also captured his greatest talent---his ability to talk with people as if what they have to say and what they they think about what he says matter.

Almost as good is the scene in Primary Colors, the mediocre movie starring John Travolta based on Joe Klein's awful book, in which the narrator-protagonist, campaign staffer Henry Burton, goes looking for his candidate, Governor Jack Stanton, in their hotel late at night and discovers that Stanton is not in his room. Burton has a moment of panic as he jumps to the conclusion that the philandering Stanton is out tom-catting around. But then he happens to glance out the window and sees across the parking lot a near empty diner where Stanton is sitting on a stool deeply involved in a cheerful conversation with the counterman.

Despite what I was saying last week, sometimes fiction captures the truth about life better than journalism, history, or biography.

Few politicians have that talent. Bobby Kennedy did. FDR. George Washington, amazingly, but only amazingly if you can't picture him outside of his portraits.

Pop Mannion could do it.

For the benefit of the few Beltway journalists who happen to read this: That talent is a part of a politician's character, and it's a virtue in a leader in a democracy.

Democrats---well, most Democrats---have an advantage when they walk into diners. They don't have to pretend that their honest answer to a waitress' question about how they plan to help her take care of her family isn't, Whatever your bosses and the corporations they work for tell me I can do, which very likely will be...nothing.

But having that advantage doesn't mean they know how to make the most of it. I haven't seen any of the Democratic contenders, except Hillary, work a crowd, and Bill was with her at the time.

I've heard Obama's good one on one, but that's just it, I've heard it.

Still, that advantage is why Democrats don't only appear before carefully screened crowds of proven and unquestioning loyalists.

I hope that visit to the diner won't be the last time Mitt Romney tries to mingle with regular folks again.

Actually, I hope that visit helps him win the New Hampshire primary.

I'm praying the Republicans nominate Romney.

Of course, that's primarily because I think he'll be easier to beat than Rudy Giuliani.

But it's also because it would prove that the Republicans still care a little bit about who gets to be President of the United States.

Besides having been a competent governor of an important state (Please, gang. Competent does not mean politically acceptable. Competency is a neutral virtue.), as opposed to being the divisive and not nearly as effective as he brags of being mayor of admittedly the most important city in the country, Romney is a relatively decent human being. Nevermind the stupid mistake with the family dog. (Decency is not a neutral virtue, but it is a minimum one and a fairly easy one to manage. That's why it's often called common decency. Having common decency is not the same as being a saint by a long shot.) He is also disciplined and responsible and he's worked hard. Giuliani isn't lazy but he's arrogant and thinks he can skate by without working hard, and he's intellectually and morally empty, and he's nasty. He treats everybody, including his children, far worse than poor goofy Mitt treated the family dog that one time.

And I believe what he told to the waitress, that if he gets to be President he won't just sit around and talk about problems, he's going to try to do something about them.

I don't expect to like what he tries to do.

And I think his health care plan amounts to little more than hoping the Democrats force him to sign something that's not totally unacceptable to the insurance industry.

But that's a far better plan than Giuliani's, which as Ezra Klein points out is not a plan at all, just an excuse to harsh on the Democrats as a way of endearing himself to the Radical Republican Right:

The twice-divorced, pro-choice, pro-gay Giuliani knows he's not conservative enough for the Republican base. But if he cannot erase his ideological heterodoxies, he can at least demonstrate some partisan reliability. Attacking Democrats as socialists and blasting Michael Moore ably demonstrates Giuliani's commitment to the vilification of liberals. Hating the right people is almost as good as believing the right things And having something that looks kinda sorta like an actual health care plan gets the press to cover his attacks on the Democrats as if the two sides were engaged in something worth reporting on -- say, a discussion of how to reform the American health care system. It's a smart political strategy for Giuliani, and comforting, in a way. At least we know he's got a plan for something.

Best part of the story about Romney's visit to the diner, though, is the ending:

Following the exchange, Griffin expressed her frustration with the entire poilitical process and said she wishes politicians could live in her shoes.

"Maybe they should live in our shoes... just to see how it is. It's not pretty," she said. "I'm just so sick of the nice clothes, all these fancy cars. They walk around like (pauses)... you know?"

"He was in here for what? Over an hour? That's money off my table," Griffin said.

This is what it means to be working for the minimum wage in America. Doesn't matter what a Presidential candidate's promising to do down the road, and it wouldn't matter if it it was a Democrat in there instead of a Republican; at the moment, what's a a far bigger worry is that by holding things up at the diner, the candidate was robbing her of tips.

Related: Charlie meets Bill.

Update: Apparently Romney got a little testy with the waitress. Over at Shakesville, SpaceCowboy has a link to video of Romney's visit to the diner and to a Washington Post article that reports that one of the waitress's daughters is diabetic and the other has Crohn's disease.

Big thanks to Julia. Thanks also to Avedon Carol, Kevin Drum, and Steve Benen.

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