Romney's Risks in Clean Living: Voters Expect a Little Sin on a Rap Sheet

Posted: Feb 03, 2012 12:01 AM

"I don't smoke, and I don't chew, and I don't go out with girls who do." My, how times have changed since kids amused each other with schoolyard doggerel like that one. Tobacco's out, but now nearly everything else is "in." Modern voters no longer pursue clean-living good boys, but good ol' boys with a little sin on their rap sheets.

If he is the Republican nominee -- and he took a big step toward a coronation convention in Tampa, Fla., with that solid win in Florida -- Mitt Romney's goody-goody-two-shoes reputation could hurt him worse than his flip-flops on abortion and health care reform. Or so observes Jonathan Tobin in Commentary magazine:

"It may well be the fact that he never smoked or drank that will be held against him by voters who don't think they can trust a person who won't have a beer with them, or who prefer the redemption stories of sinners who found the light."

It's a persuasive proposition. George W. Bush was a hard-drinkin' Texican before he found God and gave up the bottle, and the telling of his conversion story hurt him not at all when he ran first for governor of Texas and then for president. Nobody likes repentant sinners more than an American voter. You don't even have to sin big sins to be the man's man that many voters are looking for. Just a suggestion of having tasted the temptation of the dark side will do.

Barack Obama has lived a life in the sun, with a private-school education, full-ride scholarships and law-review editorships in the Ivy League, but he took pains in his autobiographies to spin tales of a fatherless childhood and the privations of growing up with an abandoned single mother. That struck a sympathetic note with voters. The birther accusations that he was actually born in Africa even lent a hint of intrigue.

He didn't make it to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but John McCain's tough-guy fighter-pilot image, refined and hardened in the hell of the Hanoi Hilton, has served him well in an otherwise successful political career. Bill Clinton, having littered the battlefield of love (or at least of lust) with big-haired ladies by the score, is no parent's idea of a beau ideal, but his rapscallion reputation lent him a deadly charm with voters that led to two terms.

Ronald Reagan came to politics late, and maybe he was no Errol Flynn, but we've all heard of the fun and games in Hollywood. Bedtime was not necessarily always with Bonzo. The most memorable stories about Warren Harding, a handsome, upright Baptist who in certain respects resembles Romney, were told by his Secret Service bodyguards about their struggles to keep his wife apart from his mistress. This year, we've seen Newt Gingrich, not so much a lady-killer, but a bounder who leaves the ladies wounded and bloody, survive the stories of his three wives. (Newt finally foundered on too much Newt, not too much abusive wifery.)

Poor Mitt. It's true that women are attracted, like a moth to the flame, to men with a leer as well as a wink. The man whose appeal suggests a little danger can be irresistible. A girl who wants no potholes in a romance often relishes the thrill of sharing a pitfall with a rowdy stranger. When she grows up, she's likely to be a mama who won't let her boys grow up to be cowboys, but Jonathan Tobin's political point, as illustrated by the parade of presidential rascals and bounders, is well taken. The sawdust trail can be a path not only to salvation but to the White House, too.

Mitt grew up cosseted in comfortable affluence in Detroit, transiting through neither pothole nor pitfall from idyllic childhood to walking in his father's footsteps to success in business and politics. If he ever rebelled against the tight embrace of his strict Mormon upbringing, there is no public record of it. He never even banged up the family car after a bout of too much brew with his buds. He reached maturity with no sawdust between his toes because there were no public sins to repent and atone.

He seems to understand why this is not necessarily a plus, and sometimes he kids himself about it. He's fond of telling how he once asked his wife Ann whether "in your wildest dreams you ever imagined us in a race for the White House." She replied, "No, Mitt, you're not in my wildest dreams."

It's a good thing he's comfortable aiming jokes at himself. He's missing a lot to live down.