Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Romney and the politics of pandering

By Marty Linsky, Special to CNN
updated 10:20 PM EDT, Sat September 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marty Linsky: Mitt Romney drew attention to 2008 expectations for President Obama
  • Inevitably, he says, Obama couldn't meet the high expectations his followers had
  • Romney in 2012 and Obama in 2008 pandered to their audiences to gain votes, he says
  • Linsky: Pandering is how you get elected; leadership is about what you do in office

Editor's note: Marty Linsky is the co-founder and principal of Cambridge Leadership Associates and has been a member of the faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School for 30 years, teaching and writing about leadership. He served as Chief Secretary and Counselor to Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and was a three-term Republican state legislator. His latest book, co-authored with Ronald Heifetz and Alexander Grashow, is "The Practice of Adaptive Leadership."

(CNN) -- To his credit, Mitt Romney has framed the question just about right.

On Thursday night he said:

Marty Linsky
Marty Linsky

"How many days have you woken up feeling that something really special was happening in America? Many of you felt that way on Election Day four years ago. Hope and change had a powerful appeal. But tonight I'd ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn't you feel that way now that he's President Obama? You know there's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him. The president hasn't disappointed you because he wanted to."

Romney cannot win unless thousands of people who voted for Obama four years ago abandon him in November.

Obama cannot win by asking people if they are better off now than they expected to be four years ago.

For most Americans, myself included, that is surely not the case. The expectations for Obama, again mine included, were so off-the-charts as to be unachievable.

Nevertheless, we reveled in the fantasy.

And it was a fantasy.

How could Obama possibly have accomplished much more than he did, given the complexity of the problems, the little power the president has over either the world situation or the domestic economy, and, of course, the deep commitment the Republicans voiced from the beginning of his term to deny him any progress that required congressional support?

Did Romney-Ryan's RNC strategy work?
A look back at the 2012 RNC
Can Romney create 12 million jobs?

(The GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell was clear. In the run-up to the 2010 election he said: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." He was candid at least, defeating Obama was more important to him than, say, making progress on the economic challenges facing the country or the seemingly intractable disputes in the Middle East.)

Obama himself began to understand this dilemma near the end of the 2008 campaign. He began to talk about the multiple, unreachable and sometimes conflicting dreams and hopes that the electorate had put on him, a process with which he had readily colluded in his quest for power.

So, from day one of his presidency, the challenge for Obama was not what he could accomplish, but whether he could do the tough work of leadership. In two dramatic cases, he showed he could -- launching the risky mission that killed Osama bin Laden and plowing ahead with the comprehensive health care bill after Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts.

The work of getting elected is about pandering to your own people, telling them what they want to hear. Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012 have pandered with the best of them, albeit with different approaches.

Obama pandered by talking about his aspirations so abstractly ("hope and change") that everyone could believe he was talking to them individually. Romney did it by taking any position on any issue that the Republican base wanted to hear, regardless of whether it was consistent with his past views or made any sense.

The work of leadership is about telling your own people the hard truths they need to hear...
Marty Linsky

The work of leadership is about telling your own people the hard truths they need to hear or, to say it more sharply, disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.

Romney is counting on the possibility that the inevitable disappointment in Obama that many people feel and the gap between their always unrealistic expectations and the hard realities are so large that he can wean enough of them away and sneak into the White House where if he and Paul Ryan really try to wrestle with the tough issues they, too, will repeat the same syndrome, disappointing their own people at a rate they can absorb.

The advantage that the Romney/Ryan team will have over Obama is the expectations for them will be so low that the inevitable disappointment will be much less four years from now.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marty Linsky.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT