If only the politicians would tell us what they really think. If only they would drop the sound bites and the focus-group-tested messaging and give it to us straight. Two politicians did just that last week. They granted an unimpeded look into their true souls — and it was not pretty.
UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was not one of them. His apology over his broken tuition fee promise was meant to look candid and genuine, but it was as much a made-for-video stunt as his original pledge — and, as one observer rightly noted, took the curious form of a husband saying “sorry for my affair; next time I won’t vow to be faithful”.
The act of unbridled honesty was committed instead by the chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, who, living up to his “Thrasher” nickname, gave a tongue-lashing to the police guarding Downing Street. That Mitchell insulted men ready to risk their lives to protect him and his colleagues was confirmed when the chief whip telephoned the officer concerned to apologise.
The damage will linger, suggesting this is what the government’s most senior enforcer — a millionaire said to live as expensively as he was educated — really thinks: That the police are glorified servants who, if regrettably exempt these days from the obligation to bow and touch the forelock, ought at least to do what they are told by their betters. It is an ugly impression, one fast congealing in the public imagination as the defining feature of this government’s top echelon: That they are a rich, over-privileged clique, out of touch with everyday life and with a nasty streak they cannot conceal.
Luckily for David Cameron, Mitchell has next to no public profile and is in a job that requires even less. Unless more police officers demand his head, he can quietly disappear. In the US, the Republican party’s problem is somewhat graver. The man whose true self was exposed this week is their nominee for president, Mitt Romney.
It bears repeating that, as former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan puts it, this was meant to be the year “the Republican presidential candidate almost couldn’t lose”. Barack Obama has disappointed, his poll rating usually below 50 per cent with unemployment stubbornly above 8 per cent. A halfway decent, generic Republican should win this comfortably. The election is Romney’s to lose — and he is doing his best to make that happen.
The killer blow may well prove to be the secret video of his appearance before a closed-door, $50,000-a-plate (Dh183,900-a-plate) dinner for donors, recorded in May, but which surfaced last week. Much has been made of Romney’s casual writing off of 47 per cent of the American population as parasites who pay no income tax, see themselves as “victims” and believe the government owes them a living — to paraphrase only slightly — who will never vote for him anyway. As strategies for winning votes go, condemning half the electorate — including the millions of pensioners and veterans who receive benefits — is certainly novel.
While these specifics are gobsmacking, it is the overall tone of Romney unplugged that is so striking. Read the full transcript and you realise that you are eavesdropping on a meeting of the 1 per cent, a conclave of the super-rich of which Romney is so clearly a part.
He begins with a quip about inheritance planning, which clearly resonates with his audience. He gets another laugh when he jokes about immigration, chuckling that if “you have no skill or experience ... you’re welcome to cross the border and stay here for the rest of your life”. Romney goes on to voice the perennial, if improbable, complaint of the privileged white male: That life would be so much easier if he were fashionably ethnic. Recalling that his father was born in Mexico to American parents, he muses that “had he been born of Mexican parents I’d have a better shot at winning this ... it’d be helpful if they’d been Latino”.
That’s not the only instance of what is said to be a common feature of the extremely wealthy — self-pity. An audience member complains that people do not realise how hard it is for multimillionaires like them: “We kill ourselves, we don’t work a nine to five. We’re away from our families five days a week.” Romney shouldn’t apologise for his wealth, they tell him, he should be proud of it. But “I’m as poor as a church mouse”, the candidate replies — and, in that company, he might well be.
The Romney caught on video could not be less appealing, a Monty Burns caricature of a heartless plutocrat. The persona his aides have worked so hard to construct is left shattered into a thousand glassy pieces. They brag of his devotion as a husband. But at the fund-raiser, he speaks of his wife in terms that are icily transactional: “We use Ann sparingly right now, so that people don’t get tired of her.”
The word “gaffe” doesn’t do justice to this. Gaffe is adding an “e” to the end of the word “potato”, as Dan Quayle did, or forgetting the third government department you plan to close, which undid Romney’s Republican rival Rick Perry. This is gaffe as diagnosed by the commentator Michael Kinsley: When the mask slips and a politician accidentally tells the truth about themselves.
Something similar happened to Obama four years ago when — also at a closed-door fund-raiser — he mused on those small-town voters who get “bitter” at the state of their lives and so “cling to guns or religion”. He would never have put it like that publicly, but it exposed an Ivy League condescension that was real.
Such moments are not trivial, but illuminating. The Romney tape, for example, reveals an Ayn Rand, survival-of-the-fittest philosophy, pitting the “makers” against the “takers”, that is crucial to understanding today’s Republican party. And somehow, for all the complaints of control and artifice, the much-derided modern presidential campaign rarely fails to produce such moments of clarity. Yes, it is flawed — both too long and too costly. But it provides a priceless service, a scrutiny from which no candidate can hide.
Being president “reveals who you are,” Michelle Obama told the Democratic convention earlier this month. Running for president does the same thing. The trouble for Romney is that not many Americans like what they see.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd