Beware Mitt Romney’s “Softer Side”

Everyone is talking about Mitt Romney’s “softer side.”

That’s how some reporters are characterizing a recent shift in Romney’s stump speeches.

Because Governor Romney has started talking about dead people: the Navy SEAL who died in Benghazi. The 14-year-old boy who died of leukemia (profiled at the Convention). The long-lost friend stricken with multiple disabilities, who drags himself to meet Mitt Romney at a campaign rally. And dies the next day.

The New York Times reports Romney’s stump speech: “I reached down and I put my hand on Billy’s shoulder and I whispered into his ear, and I said, ‘Billy, God bless you, I love you.’ And he whispered right back to me—and I couldn’t quite hear what he said… [He] died the next day.”

And a hush fell over the crowd.

What does this have to do with running for president?

Look, people tell tear-jerkers about dead people all the time. Dying moms and kids especially.

Glenn Beck did it with his book The Christmas Sweater, in which a boy turns up his nose at a particularly unattractive but dearly-bought sweater his mother gifted him for Christmas. 

And she dies in a fiery car crash a few pages later.

Beck learned the genre, I once argued, from a particularly bruising subgenre of Mormon sentimentality: Sunday School manual anecdotes and movies that circle like vultures around accidental, lonely, and untimely deaths. Just to make us cry.

This sentimental storytelling is an American tradition dating back at least to the nineteenth century. It encourages us to zero-in on the anecdote—to identify with and shed tears for the helplessness of the victim—and lose complete sight of the big picture. 

Is there anything in Romney’s foreign policy that will ensure that more Navy SEALS, sailors, and soldiers will come home quickly?

Does the Romney-Ryan budget maintain the social safety net on which disabled people depend?

And how will repealing the Affordable Health Care Act help out the thousands upon thousands of American families who don’t have access to medical care or who face medical bankruptcy as their loved ones fight cancer?

Time to ask harder questions about the “softer side.”

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