Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Romney taps hope for economy

Why did Romney trounce McCain in Michigan? Of the two, Romney expressed an audacious hope for our economy and manufacturing base.

He told a story people in Michigan hunger to hear and he made it personal. He was born here. His father headed up American Motors and was governor. His parents are buried here. He said we can be great again. He said that manufacturing doesn't have to die. He strode through the Detroit Auto Show, head high, son of the man who made the Rambler. He believes we can bring back all the jobs we have lost. He rode in on a white horse and promised to save us.

It's a fairy tale voters wanted to hear, needed to hear. Humans have an insatiable appetite for stories, symbols and myth. Humans need meaning. We want our lives to add up to something and narrative keeps us on track. We crave stories of hope in trying times, because facts can be devastating -- facts like Michigan's job loss over recent years.

When Romney says "all the jobs," does he mean the 400,000 lost since 1999 or just the 76,300 lost in 2007? McCain was more realistic and allowed that all the jobs cannot come back. That was not a winning narrative, even if it is the truth.

Perhaps Romney's win is the triumph of faith over reason.

Michigan's economic issues are the nation's issues. But is Michigan's candidate, the nation's candidate? Romney is framing the win as "a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism," already aiming for broader relevance. His strategy in Michigan was that of native son, coming home to rescue his people. Will the "native son" strategy backfire and be used against him, painting him as locally appealing but not nationally relevant? Can he translate this spot-on Michigan narrative into a national narrative?

To do this he may need to assert that the national economy is in dire straits. Recent data do point to a national recession having started in December of last year. Romney may need to do some truth-telling about global labor markets, corporate greed and unfair trade practices before he can present himself as the solution. Michigan's issues are national issues. But is the rest of the nation ready to admit they need to be saved by Mitt Romney?