The Rock Star Romney

Every day there’s at least one headline coming across the transom that doesn’t make you laugh, cry, cheer, or think, but simply scratch your head in puzzlement. Today’s winner is from Politico‘s Lois Romano: “Ann Romney is the Romney Democrats Fear Most.”

Having been the victim of an unfelicitous headline on more than one occasion, I didn’t immediately blame Romano for this one–until I read the lede:

Ann Romney’s unexpected rock star status has the political arena buzzing about how her husband’s campaign will leverage her popularity in an election in which Michelle Obama — one of the most admired first ladies in history — will have an outsized and substantive portfolio.

Indeed, this 62-year-old grandmother’s contribution to Mitt Romney’s campaign could amount to the most relevant role a wife has ever played in a presidential effort — softening the edges of a flawed and awkward candidate who struggles to connect with voters.

Huh! Everybody thinks Ann Romney is a “rock star?” I did not know that. The “political arena” is all abuzz about her? Missed that, too; the buzzing must be confined to weekends, when I kinda check out from politics as much as possible.

If you read this long piece, however, it begins to appear that most of the buzzing Romano is hearing is coming from busy bees inside the Romney campaign itself. And Ms. Romney’s “rock star” status seems to be a reflection not so much of her political virtues as of her husband’s political vices. At various points in the piece, it’s asserted that Ann Romney is the antidote for Mitt’s problems with the conservative “base,” his problems connecting with regular folks, and his problems in conveying any sort of authenticity at all.

The sense that Mitt Romney needs his wife to be a “rock star” comes out most clearly when you read Romano’s comparisons of Ann Romney today to Michelle Obama in 2008:

In 2008, the Obama campaign totally miscalculated Michelle’s potential. They sent her just into African-American communities and black churches. Before long, mouthy conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly was calling her an angry black woman, and she was skewered for saying: “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.” Fearing she was becoming a liability, campaign officials enlisted White House insider Stephanie Cutter to help retool her image and develop her own interests to push. Michelle Obama soon emerged as a superstar of the campaign — a fashion icon and role model for young women.

Now I’m certainly a fan of Michelle Obama’s political skills; I wrote a fairly early column in 2008 suggesting that Republican efforts to demonize her would backfire.

But I don’t think anyone in 2008 was under the impression that Barack Obama had a long list of personality defects that he needed his spouse to offset or explain away for him. And if, as Romano puts it, Michelle Obama was “a superstar” in 2008, I think it’s safe to say her husband retained top billing.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about the Romneys as a team that Romano’s account mentions is that their handlers can’t decide whether Ann is more valuable on the road as a speaker, or behind the scenes as a steadying influence on the candidate. It sounds like Mitt needs a road manager and a psychologist as much as he needs a dazzling opening act. Indeed, he seems to be a very needy dude, and a presidential campaign that depends to much on a spouse to fulfill multiple roles may really just need a better act.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.