January 8, 2012

Would Romney treat America as he treated his dog?

Steve Nelson, "Sensibilities", Valley News (White River Junction, Vt.), Jan. 8, 2012:

It is nearly the eve of the New Hampshire primary and, despite the surprising Iowa results for Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney appears to be the man to beat. I suppose this is no great surprise, as Romney is a known quantity and seems relatively sensible despite his opportunistic lurch to the right during this campaign. While his reputation for flip-flopping is well deserved (health care, abortion rights, gay rights, etc.), there are few politicians who don't pander or at least play to the base (both meanings intended) during primary campaigns. Bill Clinton was, somewhat affectionately, dubbed Pander Bear by some during his presidential campaigns.

Ambition and opportunism are not qualities that should disqualify Romney. If they were disqualifiers, we'd have few if any candidates for high office. Romney is ill suited for the presidency because he once drove to Canada with the family's Irish setter on the roof of the car, as New York Times columnist Gail Collins never fails to humorously note in her Romney-related columns.

But unlike Collins, I'm quite serious. America is in trouble. Poverty is at the highest levels since the Great Depression. Unemployment is tenacious and debilitating for millions of families. The gap between rich and poor is shameful. Folks don't have access to decent health care. Schools are underfunded. As the Occupy Wall Street movement chaotically reminds us, life is better for 1 percent and decidedly worse for the other 99 percent. While this may be slight statistical hyperbole, the general point is indisputable.

Mitt Romney was and is among the 1 percent. He was born into privilege and, like too many others with this birthright, believes deeply in the myth of opportunity and meritocracy. There is not a shred of evidence in his personal, professional or political life that he is self-aware enough to recognize his own unearned privilege or empathic enough to understand the deep structural disadvantages that plague millions of Americans. He believes that decisions can be made by analyzing mounds of data and trusting the ethically blind mechanism of free markets.

He embraces his religious faith with the same uncritical certainty that he embraces the other "values" he learned in the privileged and exclusive confines of his private schools, his Mormon university and his gated communities. It's not that these things are necessarily bad. It's that they are his world, not the world.

It is not that wealth and privilege should disqualify anyone from public office either. Other privileged folks in American political history have shown great capacity for genuine empathy. The Kennedy family, despite imperfections among some family members, comes to mind. Their privilege was accompanied by a deep commitment to social justice that continues to play out in the lives of the current generation. The convictions of wealthy progressives may be a form of noblesse oblige, but noblesse oblige beats the heck out of no sense of obligation whatsoever, which is what Romney displays in word and deed.

Romney's treatment of the family dog during a road trip 25 years ago offers a clue to his political sensibilities. I am, quite admittedly, an unrepentant dog lover who mourned the loss of my last dog with intensity that surprised even me. But my excesses aside, I cannot imagine what would lead someone to put his dog in a carrier and strap it to the roof of the car. He claimed that the "dog liked it." The dog, of course, couldn't verify or deny that claim, but it was certainly put at significant risk compared with the human passengers who enjoyed relative safety and comfort inside the car. I can't know the dog's experience, either, but an empathetic person can reasonably deduce that it wasn't a joy ride up there with the roaring wind and isolation from family members.

But just like the struggling Americans that Romney doesn't seem to really see, he may have assumed the dog was lucky to be along for the ride. Romney has never been buffeted by the winds of misfortune or been at risk because of poverty, lack of health care or substandard housing. He's never felt the sting that comes with being denied basic human rights and dignity because of race or sexual identity.

Mitt Romney can't help that he's never had these experiences, but he can't be excused for failing to understand them.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon (Vt.) and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School.