Mitt Romney, Man of Compassion?

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds a baby after making a campaign stop at America
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds a baby after making a campaign stop at American Legion Post 176, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012, in Springfield, Va. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

One little problem with the compassion thing that Mitt Romney keeps touting in his recent television ads: He doesn't seem to have any.

We can safely assume that he cares about his wife and their boys. He must feel concern for the fellow congregants of his church and perhaps for some of his neighbors at one or another of his residences. He probably even liked that dog he stuck on the roof of his car.

But somewhere between his traditional social circle and the broader world -- a place inhabited by strangers whose jobs might require elimination in pursuit of profit -- Romney seems to lose emotional regard for the troubles of others.

It looks that way in part because Romney has made it look that way, cultivating the image of a stern and unsentimental disciplinarian in the face of wasteful federal spending in a bid to win over the anti-government zealots who dominate his party. This is how best to understand his decision to train his sights on Big Bird in last week's debate.

It looks that way because Romney is a creature of privilege, the son of a CEO and governor who spent his formative years at elite institutions of higher learning, and then in the exclusive ranks of premier business consulting and private equity firms. One can assume he didn't meet hordes of poor people at Harvard Business School or Bain Capital. It's hard to summon compassion for people who, within one's own experience, effectively don't exist.

In any event, it looks that way.

When you spend months bemoaning an expansion of food stamps in response to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, as Romney has done, word gets around that you are perhaps not the biggest-hearted mansion-owner on the lake.

And when you tell a room full of well-heeled campaign contributors that you have written off nearly half the country as a bunch of government-dependent parasites, compassion is not the word that springs first to mind.

Not that any of this recent history gave Romney pause when laying claim to compassion in his ads. Those in the business world like to celebrate themselves as self-made. Romney is self-made-up: He gloms on to any word that seems capable of selling the product, which is whatever incarnation of Mitt Romney he is playing that day.

"We shouldn't measure compassion by how many people are on welfare," Romney says in one ad. "We should measure compassion by how many people are able to get off welfare and get a good paying job."

That's a smart, politically opportunistic line, one that plays on the crucial need for jobs as well as on a traditional disdain for welfare recipients held by large slices of the electorate. It's also devoid of anything resembling genuine compassion.

Many people on welfare are there because they have tried and failed to secure decent paying jobs. The last Republican president put his imprint on the weakest so-called economic expansion in modern memory. Romney has been running on a pledge to extend and enhance Bush's policies, giving tax cuts to the wealthy, which would necessitate cuts to the social safety net. Yet here he is, invoking compassion as grounds for voters to congratulate themselves for their sensitivity while they join him in doing something small and mean-spirited: Cutting welfare (along with Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and unemployment benefits) in order to hand out the proceeds to the affluent.

Romney seizing on this buzzword "compassion" seems like the result of the desperation manifest in not having enough of it in the first place.

From the beginning of the race, Romney has been plagued by troubles that stem from one fundamental truth: He is a prisoner of his own limited social experience. He can't adequately connect with people, and the people to whom he reaches out can see through him. He lacks authenticity.

In a recent national poll by NPR, half of those surveyed said they had "cool" or "unfavorable" feelings toward Romney. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll asked registered voters which candidate "better understands the economic problems people in this country are having," and which one "seems like the more friendly and likeable person." Obama trounced Romney on both counts, by 52 percent to 39 percent, and 62 percent to 29 percent, respectively.

Translation: People don't relate to Romney, even the people who will vote for him on policy grounds. They don't understand him, and what they do understand they don't much like. Worst of all, they think that he is in no position to understand them.

The potential electoral consequences of these numbers seem clear enough. When people don't like you, and when they don't think you have a grasp of their problems, they maybe don't work up the same passion about helping you to become the president of the United States.

The broader consequences of a compassion deficit seem to exacerbate Romney's problems, sowing stress that seems to make him prone to saying the bumbling and unsympathetic things that have undermined his candidacy.

Those who are emotionally disconnected from others suffer physiological consequences, according to academics engaged in the scientific exploration of compassion. Research has found that taking care of others actually yields health benefits, lowering stress levels, delivering more oxygen to the brain and relieving strain on the heart.

"Compassion is simply recognition of another's suffering," said James R. Doty, a neurosurgeon who heads Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. "We know -- and evidence has borne this out -- that a person who cares for others actually has improved immune states and lower levels of stress hormones. When you are more compassionate and caring for others, you actually improve your physical and mental health, because there are mechanisms in us that actually improve when we care for others."

So maybe if Romney had more of the stuff he's advertising, he would be calm enough to think before he speaks and avoid costly gaffes. Maybe he would sleep better, and perform better on the stump. Maybe he would be better attuned to what is happening around him in the rooms where he is addressing voters, and in the country he seeks to govern.

Or maybe not. Romney is surely not invoking such an elevated conception in his campaign ads. He's just trying to win a few votes by draping a selfish impulse -- 'Quit wasting taxpayer money on lazy poor people!' -- in morally palatable language.

But if compassion is a tempting word for politicians to throw around, it is also a dangerous thing to claim for those who don't really have much of it, warn psychologists who have identified a clear backlash that tends to result.

"Viewers have the ability to feel that viscerally," Emma Seppala, associate director of the Stanford compassion center, tells me. "Romney may be better off sticking to sincerity. If he's sincerely compassionate, then great, people will buy it and his policies will reflect that. If he's pretending, however, he's likely going to make more enemies than friends and create discomfort among his viewers."

The one consolation for Romney in that scenario: If viewers feel discomfort, he probably won't notice. And if he does notice, he probably won't care.