First debate humanizes Romney

Romney successfully used the debate on Wednesday, Oct. 3 to chip away at his image as a wealthy man ignorant of and indifferent to the struggles of the common citizen.

Some of the first words out of Romney’s mouth made him seem surprisingly relatable and appealing – he made a genuinely funny, seemingly spontaneous joke. In response to Obama’s mention that he and Michelle were celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary that night, Romney said, “And congratulations to you, Mr. President, on your anniversary. I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine here – here with me.” If the guffawing response of the audience at the packed Pause viewing party was any indication, this line was a major comedic victory for Romney.

He also scored big laughs for quips about raising five sons and the things he enjoys about public television “I love Big Bird; I actually like you too [to moderator Jim Lehrer]”. Though sense of humor and personal likeability should perhaps not carry much sway, laughing at a candidate’s jokes makes viewers more receptive to the ideas he brings up next.

Romney’s charismatic style was matched with many statements sympathizing with the plight of those less fortunate than he is. He said some version of the words “people are suffering” several times – a simplified and direct, but potentially effective, way of telling voters that he cares. Though, surprisingly, Obama never brought up Romney’s recently-leaked comments condemning the 47 percent of Americans who do not make enough money to pay federal income taxes, Romney was clearly aware of the need to show more sensitivity toward those who are struggling.

Simply expressing his condolences would have been empty, however, if Romney had not said how he plans to make a difference for these people – but he did. Romney made stark, unconditional statements regarding tax plans: “I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people,” he said, and a couple minutes later, “I will not under any circumstances raise taxes on middle-income families.” Though the contrast between these promises and the principles underlying earlier plans put forward by the Romney-Ryan campaign is jarring, the change of tone makes assessing the impact of a Romney presidency on the tax share of various classes more complicated.

Romney also succeeded in making a better case for the connection between reduced taxes on businesses and improved quality of life for working class Americans. Though Obama said his tax plan would not raise taxes on 97 percent of small businesses, Romney countered that the 3 percent who would experience higher tax rates employ a large portion of the workforce. A man who once proclaimed that “corporations are people,” Romney was sorely in need of an argument that would translate his pro-business image to a pro-people image, and this may have been it.

Though 90 minutes of professed sympathy do not negate months of espousing socioeconomically insensitive views, they have at least given some murkiness to an aspect of Romney that was previously disturbing in its clarity. Romney has been criticized for flip-flops in the past, but if this one represents a true change of heart, it may just work in his favor.

Opinions Editor Stephanie Jones ’13 joness@stolaf.edu is from Boulder, Colo. She majors in environmental studies and philosophy.

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