I’m okay with the fact that I can’t have a beer with Mitt Romney. At this point in the election cycle, I’d suffer through a glass of tomato juice if it meant the conversation would turn to how he plans to help me, a 21-year-old middle-class woman who will be soon be paying off student loans.
V8 in hand, I’d rope him in with the promise of a Grey’s Anatomy recap—and quickly steer him to the topic of economic surgery. We women voters are savvy that way.
On Tuesday, I came across David Lauter’s news analysis piece in the Los Angeles Times. Lauter writes that a “shift in voter attitudes” has given Obama the lead in recent polls, and cites Whit Ayres’ metaphorical synopsis of the campaign.
“To describe the state of mind of voters he encountered in focus groups this election cycle, Republican pollster Whit Ayres has used the metaphor of a parent searching for a surgeon to treat a grievously ill child. Faced with such dire need, the parent would have no interest in anything other than the surgeon’s skill with the knife,” he writes.
I paused my reading to fully consider Ayres’ metaphor. It’s riveting, not because it offers a clever literary path to a relatively unproductive criticism of Romney, but because extending this metaphor of the surgeon helps us see where Romney still has a chance of improving his relationship with voters.
Imagine yourself as Ayres’ metaphorical parent:
The surgeon’s office is in a really nice part of town, the lobby is gorgeous. In fact, you’re a little bit intimidated by the whole thing. You’ve heard talk that the surgeon tends to take on wealthy patients first, and that when they improve, your daughter will improve too.
Well, you’re not quite sure how that equation works, and you’re put off by the old man talking to an empty chair in the waiting room, but you’re an open-minded, not to mention desperate, individual, so you’ll wait to see the surgeon for the consultation.
The old man leaves. You’re entirely alone. Your phone rings: it’s your child’s current surgeon. He wants to know when you’re coming in again, he’s asking if your daughter’s enjoying school—he remembers all of her teacher’s names.
Still, you stay in the waiting room. A nice nurse with blond hair comes out to extol the surgeon’s personal qualities. “He’s unselfish,” she says, “a real family man.” He sounds like a great guy, but you want to hear from him, you want to hear his plan for your daughter—you want specifics.
Finally, they call you in. The surgeon looks the part. He’s polite and articulate, but the conversation is vague. Maybe all first consultations are like this? You decide to make another appointment to discuss the details.
As you walk out through the opulent halls you overhear the surgeon in another meeting. He’s talking to a room of wealthy patients. He tells them that he’s not interested in serving people like your daughter because her parents expect discounted treatment. All of your fears that this might be a mistake rise to the surface.
Do you go ahead and make another appointment?
Whit Ayres is right. As I imagine it, the surgeon’s skill is the top concern of the parent. But the simplified metaphor doesn’t take into account the middle class fear of somehow being denied the operating table entirely.
In a recent USA Today op-ed titled “Will ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ bite Democrats back?,” Ross Baker offers Democrats three defenses against having James Carville’s famous “It’s the economy, stupid” turned against them: Bush’s role in the state of the current economy, Congress’ record of obstruction, and the hesitation to switch surgeons when the patient is already undergoing treatment.
“Fear of the unknown is a greatly underestimated emotion,” writes Baker. But this third defense is the one over which Mitt Romney has the most control. Romney can’t go back in time to change the records of Congress or George W. Bush, but he can begin to offer clearer solutions for the present.
This Republican candidate should have a packed waiting room—why are voters filing out? With all the talk of entitlement in the air, can Romney reasonably expect free votes for an unknown quantity?