One of the more hackneyed political tropes is the “Have a Beer” test. As Sen. Al Franken has pointed out, you’re not actually going to have a beer with the president, but you are going to have to live under the policies he enacts. And yet there is something about the power of personal appeal. The more likable candidate nearly always wins the presidency. Yes, the massively unlikable Nixon did defeat the charming Hubert Humphrey in 1968. That’s the exception that proves the rule.
Truth is we want a balance of majesty and accessibility in our president. After the affable but disastrous George W. Bush, you’d have thought the “Have a Beer” test would be discredited forever. And while in Barack Obama we elected an anti-Dubya—a leader of strong intellect and erudition—we also elected a guy whose preferred method of resolving a dispute between a cop and a citizen was over a mug of beer.
Obama is at his best when he’s a regular guy. At heart, he’s still a jock. He watches ESPN’s Sports-Center religiously, secretly coaches his daughter’s basketball team, and loves nothing better than goading his friends when they miss a shot on the court. People who have actually had a beer with him say he’s charming and down-to-earth.
Conversely, he is at his worst when he lapses back into pedantic, professorial mode. This usually happens when he’s been cooped up in Washington too long. The more he’s on the campaign trail, the better he gets.
Not so Mitt Romney. When he tries to relate to ordinary folks, he looks like a debutante at a cow-chip-tossing contest: he just doesn’t fit in, and the harder he tries, the more ridiculous he seems. (While Romney doesn’t drink because of his strong faith, you get the feeling he’d even be stiff over a chocolate shake.)
And that’s the main reason why his tax returns are such a big problem for him. It’s not that he’s rich. Presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush have been wealthy. Teddy Kennedy, against whom Romney ran in 1994, loved to tell the story of a trip to a factory gate in his first campaign. He was shaking hands with the men as they left the graveyard shift. One of them stopped and looked at Kennedy’s uncalloused hand. “They say you’ve never worked a day in your life,” he growled. Kennedy looked him straight in the eye and said, “I suppose that’s true.” The man smiled, impressed with Kennedy’s candor. “Son,” he said, “you ain’t missed a damn thing.” Teddy Kennedy was a millionaire any factory worker would have loved to have had a beer with.
So Mitt is wrong when he says his problem is people who practice the “bitter politics of envy.” His real problems are how he got rich, what he wants to do for the rich if elected, and how he relates to middle-class Americans.
Romney was born rich and spent his life getting richer. Good for him. But he did it in part through buying up companies, loading them up with debt, paying himself millions, and then ditching the companies. Perfectly legal. But politically problematic. When the best metaphor you can come with is “creative destruction,” you know you’re in trouble. Because those middle-class working people whose lives you destroyed—they don’t give you style points for creativity.
Which leads inevitably to a discussion of what Romney might do about inequality as president. The short answer: make it worse. Citizens for Tax Justice, the nonprofit group that first sussed out that Romney pays an estimated 14 percent tax rate, has crunched some more numbers. They guess (and without tax returns all anyone can do is make educated guesses) that if candidate Romney’s tax proposals were enacted into law, Romney himself would gain anywhere between $736,000 and $4.1 million in a given year. That’s a lot of money for anyone—especially someone who prides himself on his personal parsimony, and points to his frugality as part of his Everyman cred.
And so we’re back to the “Have a Beer” test. Imagine a guy with hundreds of millions in the bank (again, some of it from laying off working folks) telling a bunch of laid-off working folks, “I’m also unemployed.” How clueless, how clumsy, how cloying can you get?
Perhaps it’s personal; perhaps it’s cultural; perhaps the Reg’lar Guy chip wasn’t installed at the factory. Whatever the reason, Mitt lacks the common touch. And that could have Republicans crying in their beer come November.