By Jennifer Granholm, POLITICO
“What happened to the governor bubble?” my 78-year-old mom asked me, a hint of sadness in her voice, on a trip through the airport security lines this year after I was term-limited from office. “Where are the people to help us through TSA?”
“Mom, that was not real life,” I said. “We’re back to normal now.”
For two terms I lived in a protective bubble, like most governors. Governors have 24-hour security, we are driven everywhere, we speed through special lines at the airport. Someone does our cooking, shopping, gardening. Our calls are screened, our mail is answered for us, every detail taken care of.
If governors so choose, it would be easy avoid the unpleasantness of life. Of course, most governors wouldn’t be in office very long if they didn’t make specific, concerted efforts to connect with people’s struggles. Experiencing the unfiltered pain of one’s citizens is, I believe, the most important work a governor must do — the foundation for action.
Logistically, the bubble life is probably not much different for the uber-wealthy. They hire people to take care of their lives — their laundry and lawns, their cars and bills. They don’t worry about the meals or the rent or how to pay for their health care. They have drivers and schedulers — an army of people at their beck and call. And they have private planes so they don’t have to mess with public airports at all.
What they don’t have, unless they really try, is contact with the messiness of life. They don’t eat unplanned meals at the local ribs joint near the factory, they don’t kneel in a church in the inner city. They don’t know the moral agony of filing for unemployment, or what it’s like to choose between paying for a child’s field trip or reducing the balance on their 21 percent a month credit card.
In one notorious incident in 1994, when he was running for Senate, Mitt Romney visited a Boston homeless shelter for veterans. When the director told him that the shelter’s biggest problem was obtaining milk for the vets, Romney joked, “Well, maybe you can teach the vets to milk cows!” Reporters overheard this weird and insensitive joke, and when the story hit the papers Romney made amends by generously personally donating milk to the shelter. But if he hadn’t seen the problem (and been caught making a gaffe about it), he would not have been aware of the need, nor acted to solve it.
So, it’s not hard to understand why Mitt Romney doesn’t see the 47 percent — or even the 90 percent. It would take an “OTR” — off schedule stop — to even locate the poor in the scheduling of his day. It would mean finding the soup kitchen or the neighborhood with houses boarded up or a visit to the unemployment office. But because of risks, without his insistence, it simply would not. Happen. Ever.
Of course, presidents are isolated, too. But the difference is this: All of Mitt Romney’s life has been in the bubble. He was born into privilege and he never left it (even his Mormon mission experience took him not to Ethiopia, Belize or Mumbai, but to France). By contrast, President Barack Obama was born to a single mother on food stamps. He knows what it’s like to be poor and to know struggling people. The president’s privilege is recent; Mitt Romney’s is lifelong. The thick privilege bubble wrap around Romney means that he must work that much harder to come into contact with the real world. He bears the “special burden” of wealth, and laudably generous donations to church don’t create that contact.
Romney’s 47 percent comment was not intentionally malevolent; rather, his remarks simply reflect honest and profound ignorance of the daily lives of most people. But here’s where I do fault him: He has not shown one iota of effort to break out of the cocoon. Unlike other wealthy leaders who were traitors to their class — FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, JFK or even his own father — Mitt Romney has not placed himself in a position to encounter the truly poor, the sick, the struggling. George Romney went on a 17-city “slum tour” because he was so concerned about conditions in urban areas. The candidate himself has to be the one to insist upon it. He’d have to demand that his schedulers find ways to “see” the real America, not just at rallies. Not just at the wealthy suburbs and the megawealthy mansions in $50,000-per-plate dinners.
But other than beautifully scripted testimonials from his Church of Latter-day Saints members at the convention, we simply haven’t seen Mitt Romney in contact with raw human need beyond his comfortable LDS orbit. If it has happened, we don’t know about it. And if it’s happened, and he still condescends, then he’s a lost cause.
And therein lies the rub: It will never happen. Mitt Romney has chosen willful blindness. He will not pop the bubble. He chooses not to see, feel, touch the human need.
And therefore he won’t prescribe action to help alleviate the suffering.
And that more than anything else makes him unfit to be the president of the United States.