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Is Ann Romney the Asset Everyone Assumes?

TAMPA—Ann Romney got a very warm reception inside the convention hall here Tuesday night. And, after a shaky start, she gave as good a speech as the Romney campaign could probably expect of her—political spouses deserve to be scored on a  generous curve when it comes to giving high-pressure, prime-time speeches, a feature of our system that strikes me as beyond the call of duty. “You can trust Mitt,” she told us over and over, implicitly comparing the nation to the 15-year-old girl she was when Mitt gave her a ride home from the night they met. It was a rather odd analogy—will he kiss us on the second date?—but it clearly was deemed necessary in the service of “humanizing” her husband, the utmost priority for this convention week. (Never mind the inconvenient remark made earlier in the day at a Pennsylvania delegation breakfast I attended by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, ostensibly in reference to Al Gore: “If you have to assert you are human, there’s no way you are going to be elected.”)

But it strikes me as unlikely that Ann Romney will be able to shoulder the load of making her husband more personally appealing to the electorate. Why? Because Ann Romney is not exactly the ideal messenger herself. Ever since Mitt Romney arrived on the national stage six years ago, there has been an assumption in the press corps and punditocracy that she is vastly more natural and down-to-earth than her husband.  But it’s not hard to be more at ease on the stump than a man who likes to recite “America the Beautiful” and looked visibly uncomfortable simply standing and looking on after his arrival here tonight; Ann Romney’s relative superiority on this score has been inflated into an absolute claim to her personal appeal that I suspect is overstated with many voters.

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball already touched on one aspect of the real Ann Romney: a notable hardness that makes her an unlikely candidate for the work of softening Mitt.

Watching Ann Romney on the political stage, what she projects is not “softness” at all but a tough, hard-edged, even aggressive attitude. During her husband’s last campaign, “there were times when I wanted to like come out of my seat and clock somebody,” she mused on Fox a couple of years ago, according to an excellent profile in the Los Angeles Times. Earlier this year, she joked that she could “just strangle” the press sometimes. These aren’t serious threats of physical violence, but they reveal a combative side to her personality that’s at odds with the sweet, nurturing, maternal caricature.

Back in April, when Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen called her resume into question, Romney told a guests at a fundraiser that she relished the opportunity to defend her family. “That was a really defining moment, and I loved it,” she said. Far from playing the poor, injured martyr, she appears to enjoy a fight. In interviews, she’s more likely to push back than demur when pushed on issues like her family’s tax returns. “Have you seen how we’re attacked? Have you seen what’s happened?” she said to such a question on NBC earlier this month. “We have been very transparent to what’s legally required of us. But the more we release, the more we get attacked.”

That hardness came through at several moments in her big speech—when she declared that her husband "was not handed success—he built it!” which she followed with a short, sharp laugh, a knowing play on the night’s thematic broadside against Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark; and when she launched into her rebuttal of the Democrats attacks on “success”—“Do we want to raise our children to be afraid of success?” she said with an astringent glare.

Such hardness in and of itself is not necessarily a problem—it suggests a serious person who sticks up for herself and the person she’s advocating for. (Michelle Obama of course has her own sharp edges, which have come under far more scrutiny than Ann Romney’s.) But in Ann Romney’s case, the hardness is more potentially off-putting when brought together with another feature that Ball did not delve into: the entitlement problem. Simply put, Mitt Romney is not alone in his tone-deafness as a very wealthy person in an era of gaping inequality. Consider just a few highlights from the other Romney, the one who is, as Haley Barbour quipped this week, a “known equestrian”:

Speaking in 1994 about how she and Mitt got by during his grad school years in Boston, when they “had no income except the stock we were chipping away at”:

Neither one of us had a job, because Mitt had enough of an investment from stock that we could sell off a little at a time. The stock came from Mitt’s father. When he took over American Motors, the stock was worth nothing. But he invested Mitt’s birthday money year to year—it wasn’t much, a few thousand, but he put it into American Motors because he believed in himself. Five years later, stock that had been $6 a share was $96 and Mitt cashed it so we could live and pay for education.

One blogger did the math and figured out that stocks that were worth a “few thousand” dollars when bought but had gone up by a factor of 16 meant that the young couple was getting by by “chipping away at” assets of $60,000 (about $377,000 today). The chiding Ann Romney has gotten for these recollections did not stop her from replaying them in the Tampa speech, in which she reminisced about how she and Mitt “got married and moved into a basement apartment,” “ate a lot of pasta and tuna” and used a door propped on blocks as their desk.

There was the attempt earlier this year to downplay her good fortune:

Mitt Romney may have more money than any other presidential candidate in the race, but his wife said today that she does not consider herself wealthy. “We can be poor in spirit, and I don’t even consider myself wealthy, which is an interesting thing,” Ann Romney said in an interview on Fox News. “It can be here today and gone tomorrow.”

There was her declaration that it was time for the Obamas to pack up in the White House:

“I believe it’s Mitt's time. I believe the country needs the kind of leadership he’s going to offer… So I think it’s our turn now,” Ann Romney said.

There was her response a few months ago when pressed about why her husband won’t release more than a year and a half of tax returns:

“We’ve given all you people need to know and understand about our financial situation and how we live our life.”

Even when it comes to discussing the aspect of her life where she has dealt with serious adversity—her health—Ann Romney has at times lacked in self-awareness, as David von Drehle noted in a sensitive new profile of her for Time which gets into the fact that Romney has benefited from treatments (including her horse-riding) that most multiple sclerosis sufferers simply cannot afford:

MS drug therapy is a touchy subject in countries around the world because the medicines are extremely expensive—starting above $3,000 per month and rising steeply for drugs that must be infused intravenously. And they only slow the disease; they don’t cure it. As a result, access is uneven. Single-payer systems, like Britain’s National Health Service, have been resistant to covering the treatments, and some U.S. insurers put a lifetime cap on the amount that patients can spend on the drugs. In a 2011 interview with Parade, Romney advised her fellow MS patients “to get on medications because the medications now are so effective in reducing symptoms.” A more explicit discussion could entangle her in the thorny debate over health care spending.

And this brings us to the other potential limit to the appeal Ann Romney holds for the middle and working class swing voters that the campaign is still trying to win over. She is trying to connect from a position of noblesse oblige. But she and her husband are strikingly defensive about their noblesse—any questions about Mitt Romney’s outsized riches from Bain are an attack on his hard work and initiative, which sweeps aside the reality of his no-risk start at Bain Capital, and the tax loopholes he and Bain have benefited from, and the collateral damage of all those workers at the Bain investments that didn’t work out, from which he and his colleagues nonetheless profited. The humility of George Romney, who built his fortune from scratch, has morphed in the next generation into a not-always-suppressed self-satisfaction.

And the ticket Ann Romney is pitching for shows awful little signs of oblige. Possibly her biggest applause line in the hall was when she declared that Mitt “doesn’t like to talk about how he’s helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point,” which led into a mention of Romney’s generous tithing. But the country is not the Romneys’ church; we don’t have access to the huge LDS food warehouse in Utah. Instead, the Romney-Ryan plan makes clear that the the country’s food bank for tough times is going to shrink—literally so, in the case of deep cuts in food stamps—to pay for big tax cuts for the country’s wealthiest, including the Romneys. The country does not need to know that Mitt Romney can be trusted to drive home the pretty girl he’s identified as an excellent candidate for life partner; it needs to know that he gives a damn about the rest of us, including, and especially, those of us who are not on their face such a promising investment opportunity.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis