Do Americans want a compassionate president?

Ben Domenech has an interesting take on Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment:

Sorry folks expecting a rant on this, but I actually don’t think this one’s a big deal. Here’s the thing: gaffes of this nature have to have real victims in order to be workable. What helps Romney in this situation is that no one thinks they’re in the 47%. Even if they are! No one who was thinking of voting for Romney yesterday is standing up today saying “he’s criticizing me!” here.

Domenech is right, I think, that most people consider themselves “makers” rather “takers,” regardless of the facts. And seniors who worked all of their adult life justifiably believe they are “makers” even though they now take social security and Medicare benefits.

However, in hard economic times many people begin to consider themselves, at a minimum, potential “takers” and would like to think the government is “there for them” if they need help. Moreover, in bad times people tend to have more sympathy for those who are receiving government help.

Most importantly, in good times and bad, people seem to want a “compassionate” president. And here I mean compassionate in the ordinary, squishy sense, not the “tough love is compassionate” sense favored by most conservatives.

I base my view that folks want a compassionate president on this fact: in the last five presidential elections, America has elected three presidents who touted their compassion. George W. Bush wasn’t acting randomly when he called himself a compassionate conservative. He understood that Americans expect compassion in a president. (It turned out that Bush was, in fact, compassionate in the ordinary, squishy sense).

Maybe this aspect of the history of the last five elections is just a coincidence. But I’m betting that the Clinton, Bush, and Obama campaigns knew what they were doing when they stressed their candidate’s compassion.

Romney’s latest statement will reinforce the view that he is not compassionate in the ordinary, squishy sense. Accordingly, I don’t think we should brush aside the statement as politically damage-free. But, as I argued here, we shouldn’t view it as fatal either.

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