Any child can tell you the story of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet who wanted to become a real boy. He thought lies and tall tales would help him achieve his goal. The happy ending to that children’s story is that Pinocchio learns that to become a real boy, only the truth will work. The moral of the story is that telling lies make your nose grow longer. Telling the truth puts real flesh on your bones and real blood in your veins.
Sadly, in the fairy tale that was last week’s GOP convention, there was no such happy ending.
Mitt Romney, the wooden puppet carved to a likeness of a boy by the skilled Geppettos of the Grand Old Party — came onto the stage with a mission two nights ago: to convince the millions of eyes trained on him that he is human. Instead, we viewers were left feeling like we’d just watched the nefarious Stromboli showcasing his stringless marionette, convinced we couldn’t see the strings. We could.
His opening lines at that podium were inconsequential; what matters is that, awash in red, his attempt to convince this country that blood, not petroleum, runs through his vein came off as a stunning overperformance. Those calculating eyes forced into a dewy stare; his head tilted to commiserate comes off instead as an awkwardly overstated similacrum of emotion.
This nominee, so unversed in the tribulations of the everyday American’s reality, relied instead on shallow sentiment and his own entitled heritage –my father was a bootstraps man, so I, too, know what it’s like to struggle.
I swear, you could see his nose growing longer with every cleverly scripted line.
Like Lenin trying to convince a crowd that he’s turned suddenly capitalist, Romney’s attempt at compassion and connection looked as forced as it must have been for him. That air of privilege, of a life story alien to most Americans, was smothered Thursday in layers of mawkish hokiness. It was so transparent that it was hard to walk away feeling more disconnected from Mitt than ever.
The thing is, Romney doesn’t need to focus on his humanity. His overbaked performance signaled that his handlers were desperate; for the god he believed in appears to have shaped him from clay, then forgot to do the rest. Hence the head tilts and wide eyes; the rockstar-styled entrance and blaring backdrop. But, short of a wholesale personality transplant, attempts to make Romney a warmer candidate will not work.
It’s true that most voters cast their ballots based on base sentiment. But it’s also true that, whether through logic–for example, choosing a Big Two candidate you’re lukewarm towards because you know that the Green Party candidate you love won’t win –or through sentiment–who you’d rather have a beer with, whose story resonates with you more–voters use some sort of rationale at the ballot box.
“Experiential voting”–that is, voting because the candidate makes you feel better–has led PR and other campaign staff to conclude that A) the candidate must come off as a good ol’ boy (think Bush’s phony cowboy persona) and B) that the candidate must be seen as warm and fuzzy.
I don’t buy it. What wins elections isn’t warmness or fuzziness. It’s not policy. It’s not even about who spends more. It’s about who can craft a better story. Who can show voters that what they’re offering by engaging them in a compelling narrative.
And when that infatuation with becoming human comes at the expense of truth–something the Romney campaign (and, to a lesser extent, the Obama campaign) acknowledges and dismisses with unnerving nonchalance–we must, we need to be terrified of the consequences.
Distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies are becoming an increasingly vital part of the Romney and GOP narrative. Each one chips away at that legacy of upstanding, sincere political engagement once so strong in the Romney family. He is not a family man candidate, a businessman candidate, or even any of the epithets his opponent hurl at him. Romney is the Pinocchio candidate–so desperate to be seen as a real boy, but without a clue about what turns cold wood into warm flesh that feels warm when it’s pressed.