Like all things Romney, the choice of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential pick is thoroughly calculated and entirely dull. It is a move transparently designed to energize the base and to draw the support of Tea Partiers longing for American austerity. The Ryan pick is one the policy wonks will churn over, not the general public. The public wants a ticket to love, and Romney-Ryan is not it.
Granted, Romney's pick is generating some chatter. Readers and viewers will be reminded of the time Newt Gingrich called Ryan's budget "right-wing social engineering." Rachel Maddow is likely to lampoon how Ryan reportedly requires his staffers to read Ayn Rand's corporation canoodling Atlas Shrugged. Others will point out that having a ticket with two multi-millionaires in a struggling economy is horribly tone deaf. And still others will suggest that the unabashed white-maleness of a Romney-Ryan ticket is as outmoded as that 1970s commercial mainstay, Mr. Microphone. Of course, neither Romney nor Ryan could pull off the sexist, "Hey good lookin', we'll be back to pick you up later!" line, (but you can picture Romney trying).
The real dilemma is that a Romney-Ryan ticket is simply unlovable.
In John Frankenheimer's film adaptation of Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate, the inimitable Laurence Harvey plays the character Raymond Shaw. Shaw --t he surly, stuffy, and repressed protagonist -- drunkenly laments that he is simply "unlovable." In fact, the film's running joke is that the men who served with Shaw during the Korean War have been hypnotized to blurt uncontrollably that -- Raymond Shaw is the "kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being" they have ever known in their lives. But unlike in the Manchurian Candidate, the Romney campaign does not have enough hypnotists on staff to make the public think the same about Romney or Ryan.
Of the two, Romney is clearly more lovable. Mitt is vulnerable. He seems fumbling, uncertain. He will say anything to get you to like him. In addition, Romney exudes an almost endearing social awkwardness -- à la Michael Cera. Who didn't feel a twinge of sympathy for Romney when he uttered that now famous line about how the trees in Michigan are just the right height"?
Compare Ryan's recent performance in Virginia to Romney's in Michigan. There, Ryan aped Mitt's line about things being the right size when he discussed the size of bass in Virginia. With folksy appeal he told the audience, "This is a state that I have spent a lot of time hunting and fishing in. It is kind of the thing I like to do . . . Great bass out there, I'll tell ya. I've caught some big bass here." Ryan nails this classic political move: First, identify something a state takes pride in. Second, explain that you, too, like that thing. Third, compliment the state for having this thing. Ryan performed flawlessly, and what is wrong with that?
It was too good. Ryan is simply too comfortable as a politician to be lovable. With icy blue eyes, Ryan advocates for unthinkable policies with Mayberry-style frankness: "I don't think these things [privatizing Social Security and Medicare] are third rails anymore. People are ready for this." He proposes "reforming" the vital, life-changing programs of Social Security and Medicare as if he were delivering a routine colonoscopy. The people are not ready for this.
Unlike Ryan, who claims to be in touch with voters, Romney is proudly oblivious. It's as if his sense of entitlement is so naturalized, so engrained, that he cannot conceive why people consider him out of touch. During the primary debates, he tried to make a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry--oops. Later, he tried to woo Detroit by saying that his wife drives "a couple of Cadillacs." See how much she loves Detroit? He is also converting a modest home into a mansion with a car elevator in the midst of his presidential bid. More recently, Romney proudly professed that he has never paid less than 13 percent in federal income taxes when middle class Americans pay approximately 25 percent annually. Romney's behavior is so egregious that it must be part of a focus-grouped strategy to be demonstrably "proud of his wealth."
Ultimately, Romney is plastic. Stunningly artificial and detached from the day-to-day realities of the average working class American. If Romney is plastic, Ryan is ice. The chilling specter of Ryan's budget will hang over the campaign from now until election day.
By contrast, the Obama-Biden ticket is pure warmth, and a majority of voters agree. After four years of Biden gaffes and withering Republican attacks that portray Barack Obama as a sinister, angry, "Other," it is shocking that Obama's personal approval rating is as high as it is.
Recent polls show that Obama is still more likable than Romney. This is hard to believe considering that Obama has enacted policies for nearly four years that have tended to anger constituencies on both the right and the left. How is it possible that Romney -- who has not enacted a single national policy -- has a lower likability rating than Obama?
Romney and Ryan need to shift away from policy talk and engage in a serious charm offensive if they want to take the White House in 2012.