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Nothing Succeeds Like Success?

I’ve paid relatively little attention to the convention so far, and haven’t listened to anything in real time, so forgive me for coming to this so late, but I wanted to say a few words about Ann Romney’s speech from Tuesday.

Virginia Heffernan got at the heart of the speech: it wasn’t really about humanizing her husband – there was strikingly little specificity to her portrait of him – but rather a soft culture-war assertion of traditional gender roles in marriage, and in life.

Since the Clinton era, politicians have talked feelingly about parents—mothers and fathers—as though the work and worry of parenthood were equally shared. But without invoking culture wars, [Ann] Romney appealed to women’s intuition (of all things!) to suggest there was nothing equal about family life in her home. She began by talking about “that love so deep only a mother can fathom it”—maternal love—and then brought up a “great collective sigh” of frustration and exhaustion she said she could almost hear at day’s end.

“If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men,” she said. “It’s how it is, isn’t it? It’s the moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right.”

It’s how it is, isn’t it? Girls were girls and men were men. This was a grand and retro move: to paint women as the loving, sighing slaves of the world. And it paid off. This mom, anyhow, found it profoundly endearing and altogether natural. It’s the way a formidable, bombshell grandmother might talk sotto voce to a younger woman, hinting that we alone do all the work and know what’s up. It hit the spot. It gave courage. For a moment, it also separated women voters from the men in their lives, and conferred on us status and perspective and even sanctity that, at the end of that day, was a deep and guilty pleasure.

If the speech turns out to have been effective, this will be why.

But she did talk a bit about her husband somewhere in there, and it turns out he’s kind and patient and strong, treated her parents well and still makes her laugh. And she can tell us why he’s the right man to be President:

It’s true that Mitt has been successful at each new challenge he has taken on. It amazes me to see his history of success actually being attacked. Are those really the values that made our country great? As a mom of five boys, do we want to raise our children to be afraid of success?

Do we send our children out in the world with the advice, “Try to do… okay?”

And let’s be honest. If the last four years had been more successful, do we really think there would be this attack on Mitt Romney’s success?

Of course not.

And then the signature promise of the speech. Elect Mitt Romney Prsident and “this man will not fail.”

This struck me as one of the most authentic statements about Mitt Romney that I’ve heard, authentic because it bears almost no relationship to reality, and therefore says a great deal about where he – and his party – are coming from psychologically.

“Successful at each new challenge he has taken on” – and yet, he failed in 2008 to win the Republican nomination, failed in 1994 to defeat Senator Ted Kennedy, and didn’t seek reelection in Massachusetts in 2006 largely because he knew he would fail. As a politician, he has a less successful record than anyone in recent memory who actually won his party’s nomination.

“This man will not fail” – and yet, this touted turnaround artist left numerous companies bankrupt in the course of his business career. Which is fine – you can’t save every company, not even every company you thought you could save. Part of the job of a private investor is to make those tough calls, and there’s nothing dishonorable in that. A critique of private equity can be made – of the ways it which it leverages the tax code, for example – without it turning into a critique of capitalism. But presumably Romney did think he could save every company he invested in, right? He didn’t buy companies intending to strip them of their assets and then kill them. Right? Or are we really supposed to believe that every Bain investment that failed was the fault of people who were in charge during one of Romney’s periodic leaves of absence?

I don’t mean to suggest that the problem with Romney is that he isn’t really such a great success. Indeed, an alternative narrative like “when this man fails, he picks himself up and tries again until he succeeds – he doesn’t let failure get him down” is a great story – a much better story than “this man will not fail.” But that’s not the story Mitt Romney has been telling. The story he’s been telling is, “I’m a winner. I’m a success. I’ve always been a success. And I earned my success. So you should elect me.”

It’s almost as if Romney is presenting himself as a totem: I am success; make me first among your gods, and success will fall like manna. It’s also, in a way, the counterpart to Ann Romney’s portrait of their marriage. Theirs is a “real” marriage – because they are mortal. Their kids yell and the rain wets them and they are subject to disease; in these ways, the really rich are just like you and me. And yet it’s a marriage in which husband and wife never argue (so Ann Romney has averred), and each plays his or her traditional part and feels that this arrangement is just right. So Mitt Romney’s career, too, was real, and yet was one in which he went from success to success, turning everything to gold with his (hardworking) touch – as if always succeeding was just natural. (And of course, the identification of wealth as the measure of success is simply assumed.)

It’s a bizarre way to present yourself, when you think about it, and bizarre to think that it would be generally appealing. It’s much easier for me to understand why people would love George W. Bush’s prodigal son schtick, or Bill Clinton’s poor country boy conquers the big city act, or certainly Ronald Reagan’s autodidact against the experts routine (a routine farcically parodied by Sarah Palin and authentically reprised by Ron Paul). Even Mr. Incredible doesn’t become a sympathetic character until he’s learned that some things matter more than being recognized as Mr. Incredible.

On the one hand, I suspect that message is one Mitt Romney, for his own reasons, feels he must deliver, because this is the way he’s always talked (at least, as long as I’ve been listening). But on the other hand, I suspect this message connects with the contemporary Republican party psychologically, in a way that it really doesn’t connect with me. I once defined the difference between right- and left- wingers as the difference between people who care mostly about rewarding success and people who care mostly about mitigating failure. Both attitudes are obviously important for a society to have, but by this definition the current Republican Party is exceedingly right wing. And it appears they’ve got the nominee they deserve.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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