For a time now, the narrative surrounding Mitt Romney has been that there is no there there. Hence it's impossible to know him because he doesn't know himself. He moves with the moment, a political chameleon, reflecting those positions and values he believes will serve him best at the time.
But perhaps he does have a core set of beliefs; they've simply been disguised beneath a smiling facade of vagueness and prevarications and a strategy that assumes that he can be elected without being specific. The electorate will vote against Obama and Obama's economy and he will win by default.
But during a $50,000 a plate fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., Romney had a defining moment. He felt at ease, believing that his comments were delivered in the safety of a closed-door gathering of wealthy, like-minded Republicans, answering questions about domestic and foreign policy that were startling in their unabashed candor and revealing content.
Romney said, "Well, there are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they're entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. These are people who pay no income tax. So my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Clearly Romney agrees with a mythology that has infused the GOP, meaning the magical thinking that we are a nation of rugged individualists, to quote Herbert Hoover, who stand alone and take full responsibility for their own lives. They are stoic, have true grit, are steely in their determination, self-reliant, never flinch, take risks and turn inward for the strength to persevere and prevail. They value their independence and often reach for the word "freedom" to describe their views.
When they speak of getting their country back, they mean a country where they are free to live their lives absent outside regulation or government intrusion. They might not call their viewpoint "social Darwinism," but they agree with its tenets. If they falter, or even fail, well, they have made their existential choices and are prepared to live with the consequences absent government intervention. Hence the brouhaha over a health care mandate.
Hollywood has enshrined this fabled, self-reliant character in the persona of the cowboy, an idealized archetype, an avatar of ourselves, the image iconic in its resonant power, seductive in its lack of complexity, almost luminescent in its imagined purity. And yet it does not mirror how the world works. At least not today in America.
There was, of course, a time in our nation when there were no agencies to regulate health and safety, no Social Security or Medicare. If you became acutely sick or lived into old age (a dicey proposition) you were on your own or hoped for the compassion of others.
And yet the Republican Party, to include Mitt Romney, is in thrall of this cowboy ideal, founded on a fantasy, a mythos, and that is exactly why the Romney campaign believed they could twist Obama's comment, "you didn't build that," and the distortion would resonate. They called for personal testimonials, created bumper stickers and convention banners, all righteously insisting, "I BUILT THAT."
Of course you built that (an auto repair shop, a manufacturing business, a boutique), but you also derived great benefit from the commitment we all make to the common good, also known as community. Together "we built that," meaning the roads, the schools, the firehouses, the police stations and the social safety net.
It's all part of a social contract. America today is not a place where we look away if someone stumbles or becomes ill or slips into desperate poverty. It's not who we are. America represents — and this is really important — the intersection between individualism and the common good. Neither is denigrated and people are not victims. Most rise each day and work hard and find in that work real meaning. They take pride in caring for themselves and their families. And they pay taxes, be it sales tax, property tax or payroll tax.
As a people we recognize that the quilt known as America is stitched together with a thread called compassion. We know that life can be harrowingly uncertain and unfair and so we construct a backstop. We will care for the least among us. To understand what it means to be an American (or a president) is to believe not only in the individual but also in the common good, however imperfect. Neither Romney nor today's Republicans grasp this.
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.