About Mitt Romney’s Shirts

Just before Mittens takes the stage tonight—a stage that has been moved “closer to the people” just to help him connect with the people—I am thinking about that connection problem with common folks who don’t send their under-the-mattress money to European banks for tender loving care.

I found the Romney’s “Costco” interview with Chris Wallace highly entertaining, what with Mrs. Romney desperately trying to convince us that her husband could relate to the ordinary Joe who is forced to wear shirts from a big box discount store.

That’s okay by me. I don’t want to hate Mitt Romney. And although I think his lifestyle and his mannerisms and his jokes and his lying are creepy, I don’t want to think he is, outside of politics, a bad human being who may or may not routinely wear shirts from Costco.

In her convention speech the other night, Ann Romney shared, for public consumption, this tidbit:

When Mitt and I met and fell in love, we were determined not to let anything stand in the way of our life together. I was an Episcopalian. He was a Mormon.

We were very young. Both still in college. There were many reasons to delay marriage, and you know? We just didn’t care. We got married and moved into a basement apartment. We walked to class together, shared the housekeeping, and ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish. Our desk was a door propped up on sawhorses. Our dining room table was a fold-down ironing board in the kitchen. Those were very special days.

The idea here, of course, is to portray the beginning of the Mitt and Ann Romney family as fairly typical of the way most American couples start out, having little but loving each other much.

But even if those young Romneys did eat “a lot of pasta and tuna fish,” the attempt at “we know what life is like for folks who don’t have much” sounded totally artificial to me.

You see, there is a difference between young folks starting out and walking the high wire of life 50 feet up, without a net and only the hard concrete of reality below, and folks walking that high wire only about five feet up with a feather bed to land on, should they, God forbid, fall.

And the young Romneys certainly had the comfort of knowing that their landing, should it have been necessary, would mean they would live to take another walk, comfortably and without a limp.

That obviously makes a lot of difference in terms of one’s security and well-being. And thus I think the Romneys would have to work hard to ever understand, even incompletely, what it is like to be on that 50-foot high wire knowing that one slip means a hard fall.

Melissa Harris Perry, commenting on Romney’s “disconnect” from the average voter, made a point today that I have not heard another soul make during all the incessant chatter about Mittens:

It’s not a sympathy question. It’s not a question of whether Mitt Romney can be sympathetic. It’s a question of whether or not he has empathy, in other words, a kind of first-hand knowledge and understanding of what the kinds of struggles ordinary Americans are facing right now…

Ah. Sympathy versus empathy:

Both empathy and sympathy are feelings concerning other people. Sympathy is literally ‘feeling with’ – compassion for or commiseration with another person. Empathy, by contrast, is literally ‘feeling into’ – the ability to project one’s personality into another person and more fully understand that person.

That’s it. That’s what needs to be understood about Romney and why his awkwardness in connecting with folks is not as important as what guides him as he fashions the policies he will pursue, should his campaign of lies be successful.

I have no doubt that Romney is a charitable man, who has done many good things for others in his personal life. In fact, in my experience sympathy often produces personal charity. But let’s don’t pretend that such charity is purely an act of unselfishness.

Mrs. Romney said this in her speech:

Mitt doesn’t like to talk about how he has helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point. And we’re no different than the millions of Americans who quietly help their neighbors, their churches and their communities. They don’t do it so that others will think more of them.

They do it because there is no greater joy. “Give and it shall be given unto you.”

Get that? “They do it because there is no greater joy,” which means they do it because it brings them joy. They get something out of the giving. It is, paradoxically, a form of selfishness. That quote from scripture, Luke 6:38, makes this point even more clear:

Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom.

Give because it feels good, is what Ann Romney actually said. And Jesus said it will actually bring good things your way to boot.

In my reckoning, empathy—in Melissa Harris Perry’s words,”a kind of first-hand knowledge and understanding of what the kinds of struggles ordinary Americans are facing“—is a different thing. It may produce charitable acts, certainly, but in a political context it also should produce public policies designed not as handouts based on our feeling sorry for folks who are down and out, or folks who are struggling to make a living or get an education, or folks who have grown old and insecure, but because we, as a people, know the struggles that some people face.

And unlike the personal reward for charitable giving, “no greater joy,” the reward for advancing and supporting policies that provide funds for food or health care or education or retirement is civilization, the comfort of knowing that we live and breathe in a land where people don’t have to go hungry or go without health care or miss out on an education or worry about the insecurity of old age. In a word,  empathy creates the net that should be below everyone, not just the Romneys of the world.

I am not saying that rich people like Mitt and Ann Romney can’t empathize with others, nor support public policies that ensure the well-being of all. There have been plenty of wealthy people, including George Romney, who supported such policies.

I just know that Mitt Romney has had a hard time demonstrating such empathy during this campaign, but, more important because it is more telling, many of the policies he champions as a presidential candidate certainly don’t give us the slightest bit of confidence that he understands the struggles of ordinary Americans.

In fact, those policies demonstrate just the opposite, and buttoning up a Costco shirt each morning has absolutely nothing to do with it.

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