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Explaining Mitt: An hypothesis

Like many people, I’m scratching my head trying to understand how Romney can say some of the things that he’s said over the past few months.

After he offered to bet Rick Perry $10,000 at one of the debates, you know his handlers took him aside and said something like, “Governor Romney, the bet was a good idea. Punchy and fun. But, just so you know, $10,000 is a lot of money to most people. Just knock off two or three zeroes next time. In fact, that’s in general a good rule of thumb for you: ‘Before you speak, two digits off the peak.'”

And when Romney told college students to borrow money from their parents to start a business, his handlers said, “Great going with the pep talk, Governor. But next time keep in mind that most parents don’t have a lot of spare cash around. Here’s a mnemonic for you: ‘Parents pay-rents.’ Got that?”

And when Romney said that he has friends who own NASCAR teams, his handlers said to him, “Good for you for bonding with the NASCAR crowd, but most people are there to root for a team, not because they own one. Here’s a phrase that might help: ‘Owners are boners. Employees, puhlease.'”

So why doesn’t it sink in? Mitt’s smart. And I don’t think he’s incapable of empathy. So, I have an hypothesis, which I offer as a way to make sense of his repeated and, frankly, weird stumbles.

Remember when in 5th grade you picked a foreign country to write a report on? Let’s say it was China. You read some age-appropriate books. You drew some pictures. You explained, as best as your 10-year-old brain allowed, some of China’s history, a bit about their language — pictograms are cool! — and then perhaps you wrote about what life is like in China for a child your age. And, if you were very lucky, you got a pen-pal in China. Sure, after a few exchanges, the correspondence ended. But it was pretty thrilling while it lasted.

And if you were a typical ten year old, you made a bunch of dumb mistakes that now you laugh about. You asked your pen-pal what his favorite baseball team is, or what she got for Christmas. From this you learned that life in China is more different from yours than you had imagined. It’s a crucial lesson.

My hypothesis is that Mitt has trouble with this lesson: Romney is unable to cognitively understand the situation of others. He can talk so casually about firing people — and he could “restructure” a distressed company so cooly — not because he doesn’t care about workers but because he doesn’t intellectually grasp that most people don’t have the financial backup that he has always had. For the same reason, he genuinely thinks that during his time in Paris as a missionary he struggled the way ordinary folks do. I think it’s the same lack of cognitive imagination that leads him to see others as feeling entitled, when his whole life seems to be based on his own sense of entitlement. It’s a cognitive problem, not an emotional one.

Hey, it’s a theory. But if it’s wrong, as it’s like to be, then we need another hypothesis to explain his pattern of statements that show a fundamental misunderstanding of how life looks to the rest of us.

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