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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Romney's Problems (And What He Can Do About Them)

Two Big Problems; One Solution
As the self-proclaimed “severely conservative” former governor of Massachusetts moves through some tough primaries to ultimately win the republican nomination for President, candidate Romney will find that two issues will come back to dog him that will grow in importance to moderate voters.

The first is his proclamation that this election is about the very “soul” of America, and how exactly he defines our “soul.”  The second relates to the business experience that he claims as demonstrates why he is best equipped to be President. Many Americans will question this assertion in a new way.  
Things won’t look good, on either front. But, there is a way to overcome what will become strong negatives to moderates:  The winning strategy lies in the decision of which camp Mr. Romney will ultimately pitch his tent permanently - with the far right, or, with the center and center right.  America is coming to understand that the only litmus test for good governance is collaboration. Center left and center right will reward those who have the courage to compromise, and vote against those who don't.   
The Soul of America? Really?
Souls don’t change too much, now do they? When he was on top of the polls and ready to “win” the Iowa caucuses, candidate Romney called the 2012 presidential election a battle for the “soul of America.”  

That really caught my attention. Soul. That’s a serious word if there ever was one. When you hear the word “soul” what do you think of? 
Mitt Romney defined America’s soul in economic terms: free enterprise and capitalism. I've spent my entire career in free enterprise, including start-ups and more established mid-sized firms. I get it. He says that the soul of America is that spirit of free enterprise. OK, then. That’s his take.
To create a stark contrast for America, candidate Romney claimed President Obama to be the flag bearer of the clearly failed European "socialist" model, that of bloated government spending out of control, overregulation and excess taxation, where government’s resulting obligations have brought the European Community to the brink of economic catastrophe. Sounds really bad,  and, it is. So the contrast is created; the bed is made. 
It seems to me that candidate Romney has had a real hard time connecting with America. One wonders why. He appears eminently qualified to lead a great organization. His business acumen seems without peer.  He has state-level executive experience. He saved the Olympics. His father was a two-time governor and member of President Johnson’s cabinet. He is wealthy almost beyond measure. Great credentials. But attempts at true connection feel strained. Few Americans begrudge candidate Romney for his wealth. It’s his heart - his soul - that we just can’t seem to figure out.

I think that Mr. Romney is entirely wrong that our American soul is based on Free Enterprise. It’s not. The first word, "Free," or "Freedom," is certainly closer, but that's not it entirely, either. I think that the Moderate Middle Majority sees America’s soul as our shared experience and beliefs, made up of many things: shared experiences of immigration (most, not all); of hard work; of love of family; of freedom; of good governance by the people, for the people; of pride in a country that has saved the free world from tyranny and destruction several times in the last century; America as an example for the oppressed of other lands to rise up and be heard, as we ourselves first did several centuries ago; of religion that speaks less of “don’t tread on me” and more of “doing unto others what we would have them do unto us;” of religious tolerance; of fairness; of the spirit of free enterprise, of competition (with regulation in place to protect Americans from human frailties like dishonesty and greed); of hope, including hope for safe cities and towns; of equality; of social justice.
What do you feel constitutes America’s soul? What drives President Romney? He should speak to this. His answers should speak to America’s Moderate Middle Majority. If not, his bed is made.  
Candidate Romney's Business Experience, Dissected In A Different Way. 
Candidate Romney’s wealth is inspiring to me. I think that most Americans feel the same way. In the end, the problem with candidate Romney is not his wealth. Nor do I think that Mr. Romney will lose too many votes from those thousands of American jobs that Bain's companies cut through streamlining, squeezing suppliers, bankruptcy, technology innovations, or outsourcing jobs to other nations overseas. Face it: that’s business. He created thousands of jobs, too. 

He learned his trade at Harvard Business School. HBS follows the case study model of learning. The assignments were clear: come up with up with the best business decisions based on the facts of the case. I reveled in such case studies in my own business school experience. Believe me, the impact on workers, their families and communities in case studies we studied were seldom taken into account in our deliberations, either. It was more like playing Monopoly: do I mortgage my railroads to buy more hotels, or not. Miss the mark and you get a "C" grade. We considered the facts of the case, determined the best outcome for the organization, wrote it up, presented it, learned about the actual outcome, received our grade, and moved on to the next case.

The stakes were certainly higher at Bain. The companies were real. The money was real. Investor expectations were real. And, the consequences for the businesses acquired were real, too. The investors, wealthy individuals and institutions - his clients - saw excellent returns. Americans should applaud that. The issue will be that he was more like the puppet pulling the strings; seldom at ground level, in the trenches and working shoulder to shoulder with others building a dream. that's what most Americans can relate to.  Instead, he was two steps removed, deciding fates, based on numbers.

Since his days in leveraged buyouts and venture capital, candidate Romney has led an Olympics, ran for he US Senate, was elected governor of Massachusetts, and has been running for president for some time. He's seen more than his share of living rooms; shaken a million hands. But we still wonder how connected he is to real, ordinary people like you and me, the busy and trusting Moderate Middle Majority; the managers, workers and families who sacrifice their time, careers and energy into building their own, perhaps more modest dreams, hopeful that their elected officials do the right thing.

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Candidate Romney needs to bear his "soul" to America’s Moderate Middle Majority. For it is the center (center right and the center left) who will determine his fate, not the far right. He must govern from center, doing what's best for that widest of groupings of American citizens. It’s that simple. 

The sooner he moves to favor the center, the better are his chances in November. If that means giving his Republican primary opponent(s) more far right votes through Super Tuesday and beyond, then so be it. Risky? Yes. It is such defining moments, filled with risk and uncertainty, and led by the soul, not by the poll, that create the great leaders. Candidate Romney needs to pitch his tent near center, and stay. The battle will be fought, and the victory won, there.