Mitt Romney suffers from one disadvantage in this presidential campaign: he just doesn't like politics.There are, obviously, lots of reasons not to like politics or politicians. But if you're going to be a politician, you will probably be a better one if you actually like politics.
Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had very little in common ideologically, but both of them loved the pomp and circumstance of the political game. Reagan particularly enjoyed the performance aspect of it, and Clinton was never more at home than when he was pressing the flesh in the middle of a crowd.
Romney, however, doesn't like either the show or the personal interaction with voters. He likes the challenge of being in charge, and it doesn't take much Freudian analysis to figure out that he's following in his Dad's footsteps. But his troubles at the Olympics highlighted his lack of interest in basic showmanship. He didn't just commit several gaffes in a couple of days, he didn't just "blow what was seemingly an un-blowable opportunity." He was totally unprepared for some simple gladhanding because he hadn't prepared any opportunities for self-promotion. He held a fundraiser in London, which is his kind of environment - close, personal interaction with other rich people. But if Reagan had made this trip, he and his team would have had the entire thing very carefully stage-managed. The candidate would have had several photo-ops with American athletes, he would have made vague and probably inaccurate references to his experience as a lifeguard and a radio sportscaster, he would have waved and smiled a lot, and he would have spouted platitudes and cliches about how sports transcends the nasty business of politics. It would have been totally cheesy and sentimental, as well as a blatantly hypocritical attempt to appear above politics while scoring political points. And it would have worked brilliantly. As a liberal Democrat, I would have gnashed my teeth about the superficiality of it all, but there would have been nothing I could have done about it. Particularly because none of the three candidates that I supported during the '80's had the foggiest clue how to do anything like it.
Romney, on the other hand, made no effort to participate in the showmanship of the Games. He didn't even show any interest in watching his wife's horse. He didn't meet the athletes. He could have talked about how the technological innovations showcase American ingenuity and creativity - nope. He made very little mention of his own experience running an Olympics. He didn't show people he was having a good time at the biggest party on the planet. He's like the guy who goes to the library when everyone else is at the homecoming game. The ultimate goal of politics is not to pass legislation; it's to give people the opportunity to enjoy their lives.
Obama understands all of this. He likes the intense policy debates and the games he has to play with Republicans, but he also genuinely enjoys standing in front of thousands of people and inspiring them. Most fortunately for Obama, Michelle clearly enjoys the attention of the public as well.
One of the great ironies of politics is that the really important stuff - the intricacies and details of policy and legislation - is really boring, and generally impenetrable to the public at large. Symbols matter because they translate the boring stuff into something that the average citizen can understand. Great politicians don't just get the importance of symbols and the show - they like translating the language of the boring stuff into the language of the public.
Mitt Romney doesn't just not like this process, he doesn't appreciate how important it is, or why he should do it. Which means that he has surrounded himself with people who think the same way. Most of them stayed home and didn't even join him on this trip.
People who enjoy the games they play are almost always better at them than people who don't derive the same satisfaction. Just ask anyone in London this week.