The Presidential Beer Test

Article excerpt

Byline: Paul Begala

Mitt's problem isn't that he's rich. It's that he can't seem to relate to voters who aren't.

One of the more hackneyed political tropes is the "Have a Beer" test. As Sen. Al Franken has pointed out, you're not actually going to have a beer with the president, but you are going to have to live under the policies he enacts. And yet there is something about the power of personal appeal. The more likable candidate nearly always wins the presidency. Yes, the massively unlikable Nixon did defeat the charming Hubert Humphrey in 1968. That's the exception that proves the rule.

Truth is we want a balance of majesty and accessibility in our president. After the affable but disastrous George W. Bush, you'd have thought the "Have a Beer" test would be discredited forever. And while in Barack Obama we elected an anti-Dubya--a leader of strong intellect and erudition--we also elected a guy whose preferred method of resolving a dispute between a cop and a citizen was over a mug of beer.

Obama is at his best when he's a regular guy. At heart, he's still a jock. He watches ESPN's Sports-Center religiously, secretly coaches his daughter's basketball team, and loves nothing better than goading his friends when they miss a shot on the court. People who have actually had a beer with him say he's charming and down-to-earth.

Conversely, he is at his worst when he lapses back into pedantic, professorial mode. This usually happens when he's been cooped up in Washington too long. The more he's on the campaign trail, the better he gets.

Not so Mitt Romney. When he tries to relate to ordinary folks, he looks like a debutante at a cow-chip-tossing contest: he just doesn't fit in, and the harder he tries, the more ridiculous he seems. (While Romney doesn't drink because of his strong faith, you get the feeling he'd even be stiff over a chocolate shake.)

And that's the main reason why his tax returns are such a big problem for him. It's not that he's rich. Presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush have been wealthy. Teddy Kennedy, against whom Romney ran in 1994, loved to tell the story of a trip to a factory gate in his first campaign. He was shaking hands with the men as they left the graveyard shift. …