Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Romney's choice of Ryan as his running mate: A psychodynamic look.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has chosen Paul Ryan as his vice presidential candidate. Journalists and bloggers consider the choice to be a bold one since it links his candidacy to the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, and therefore risks losing voters in the center who may still be undecided. Ryan stands for fiscal astringency, reducing social welfare programs, privatizing elements of Medicare and Social Security, all joined to a stout opposition to abortion rights, gun-laws and same-sex marriage. The decision is bold presumably because Romney can now draw a clear line of demarcation between himself and Obama, rather than arguing that he is better able than Obama to pull the economy out of the “Great Recession.” Romney in this sense has “drawn the line in the sand,” highlighting, to the greatest degree possible, his differences with Obama.

There is of course a political discourse to consider in assessing Romney’s choice. For example, does Romney risk losing undecided voters even as he invigorates his base. But I want to propose that we can also look at this decision from a psychodynamic point of view, as a case of how emotions shape executive level of decisions.

Perhaps the most important issue to ask is, to what degree, by selecting Ryan, does Romney now depend on him to define his own place on the political spectrum? The day after the announcement a member of Romney's campaign staff saw fit to tell reporters that the ticket is “Romney/Ryan, not Ryan/Romany.” Similarly, one journalist wondered if, by choosing Ryan for the reasons he did, Romney has to some degree diminished his own stature. It is common for presidential candidates to choose their running mate on the basis of the latter’s distinctive strengths. One is reminded here of Kennedy’s choice of Lyndon Baines Johnson as his running mate. The latter had a political base in the South that Kennedy lacked. But it is less common for a presidential candidate to choose his running mate based on his own weakness or limitations.

I am drawn to a “slip of the tongue” Romney made when first introducing Ryan as his running mate in front of an enthusiastic crowd. Describing Ryan before he joined Romney on the dais, Romney called Ryan, "The Next president of the United States!” The psychoanalytic perspective presumes that slips of the tongue such as this one have meaning, that is, they are motivated rather than random.

Now one simple explanation for this slip is that Romney had imagined hearing, in a kind of daydream or fantasy, the phrase, “The next president of the United States,” over the course of his campaigning. This fantasy would be a simple way of anticipating the relish he would feel upon being introduced in this way after his victory. His slip is simply a way of expressing this relish. Indeed, Obama made the very same slip when introducing Biden as his running mate in 2008. But there was a difference between the two slips. Obama corrected himself immediately, as most people do after a slip, saying “the next president, uh vice president..” Romney corrected himself only after he had left the dais, and returned– to interrupt Ryan - clearly having been coached by aides who let him know what he had said. 

In looking at such a slip are we making a “mountain out of a molehill?” Freud spoke of the "psychopathology of everyday life" to describe how moments of emotional gravity can be revealed in apparently trivial ways.  It is useful in this context, to think how psychoanalysis parses such “Freudian slips.” The slip is the intrusion of an idea or wish that the person considers unacceptable, that is, something you would not acknowledge in public, but that nonetheless is a source of considerable gratification. For example, I recently spoke with a practicing physician, who in describing the outcome of a clinical trial he was conducting for a drug company, referred to its “secondary income.” A slip such as this is funny because the unacceptable idea, in this case he was making extra money by working for a drug company, rides on the back of the acceptable idea, his research had an outcome. In this case, the word “in” sneaks past and displaces the word, “out.”

One hypothesis about slips is that the longer it takes the person to correct the slip, if he ever does, the more powerful is the gratifying idea or wish. The ego, which monitors one’s self-presentation constantly, can’t resist the intensity of the wish. It fails as a censor. But the pleasant day-dream of hearing the phrase, “The next president of the United States,” is an unlikely candidate for such a powerful wish, particularly for a man like Romney who has great self control and tremendous discipline. So if we proceed along this line of argument we are led to speculate about what wish could be powerful enough to escape an ego’s ability to censor it. What wish is gratifying enough for Romney to imagine Ryan, rather than himself as president? 

I am drawn here to Mitt Romney’s very close relationship to his father, George Romney. He regarded him as his mentor and guide and it appears that they had a loving relationship. George Romney was a great success in business, as was Romney, was the governor of a state, as was Romney, and like Romney, campaigned in the 1968 Republican primaries to be the party’s presidential candidate. Though a fiscal conservative, he was a firm supporter of civil rights for African-Americans and therefore opposed Barry Goldwater’s bid for the Republican nomination in 1964. At the time, Mormon Church-doctrine held that African-Americans were inferior, and one church leader wrote George Romney a personal letter warning him of his failure to support church teachings. While he endorsed many “law and order” measures and believed that crime was the result of moral decay, as governor, he also introduced Michigan’s first state income tax. In addition, “he held a series of governor's conferences, which sought to find new ideas from public services professionals and community activists who attended. He opened his office in the Michigan State Capitol to visitors, spending five minutes with every citizen who wanted to speak with him on Thursday mornings, and was always sure to shake the hands of schoolchildren visiting the capitol.  He almost always eschewed political activities on Sunday, the Mormon Sabbath.” Upon withdrawing from the primaries and ceding victory to Richard Nixon, he wrote to Mitt, then a missionary in France, "Your mother and I are not personally distressed. As a matter of fact, we are relieved. We went into this not because we aspired to the office, but simply because we felt that under the circumstances we would not feel right if we did not offer our service. As I have said on many occasions, I aspired, and though I achieved not, I am satisfied."

The picture one gets is of a man who lived on a moral plane, who believed in his own agency, as well as his obligation to serve, who took his religion seriously, had a dramatic conception of his life, and took up the complexities and contradictions of his own background and experience with zest and commitment

There is reason to believe that Mitt shares many of these features, that he has indeed followed in his father’s footsteps. He is a devout Mormon, by all accounts personally very generous, pragmatic, focused on social justice, but also committed to the idea of personal responsibility. These characteristics certainly shaped his attention and commitment to health care insurance reform in Massachusetts. Poor people needed help, but everyone had to contribute. If you were uninsured but used hospital services when sick, you were irresponsible.

One hypothesis is that because politics is now polarized, Romney has been unable to express the complexity of his own political and personal makeup. Political discourse is too black and white. Moreover, the electorate may not tolerate a man motivated by his Mormon beliefs.  This may explain why Romney has appeared stiff and uncomfortable in public and why his candidacy lacks a certain passion. He cannot be wholly himself. By choosing Ryan, he borrows the latter’s single-mindedness and the zeal of the conservatives who see Ryan as their representative. In this sense, we could say that choosing Ryan was not bold, and indeed may have been made out of fear. In this way of thinking, to act courageously, he has to be fully himself in all his complexity, and take the risk that a polarized electorate might reject him. Indeed, it appears that Romney father’s lived out this choice, and this was one reason for his own political defeat. If Romney experiences his father as an ideal, then it makes sense that his own choice, to be evasive and withdrawn, is an act of bad faith and a disappointment to the “father in his mind.”

This line of thinking may shed some light on his slip of the tongue. In describing Ryan, many have noted that, with the difference in Romney’s and Ryan’s age, Ryan could be Romney’s son. Journalists have also commented on how Romney often likes to surround himself with young hard-working men. In other words, he thrives in settings where he is a father figure to sons. Perhaps his slip expresses the wish that he is no longer in the position of a son who needs to follow the example of a father, but that he is now the father whose primary obligation is to support and nurture a son. This wish, to be the father rather than the son, relieves him of the bad faith he feels in not following in his father’s footsteps, since he forgoes his own striving. The more he idealizes his father, the more powerful would this wish be. Perhaps this helps explain why he made his slip of the tongue and did not correct it. It also lends a psychological truth to some observers’ conception that the ticket is Ryan-Romney rather than Romney-Ryan. If this analysis is sound, it suggests that Romney’s choice, even if it were politically astute, was in some degree psychologically compromised.  

My skeptical readers may look askance at this kind of speculation. But I want to emphasize that many observers use an unexamined psychology, we can call it “common sense” psychology, to understand political figures. For example, political figures are regularly presumed to be ambitious, fearful, self-interested, generous, crafty etc. I call it common sense psychology because we often see no reason to justify our inferences. But since we cannot observe any of these traits, only people’s actions, it is fair to say that this kind of psychology is speculative as well.  What is discomfiting about a psychoanalytic psychology is that, as a depth psychology, it presumes that motives are many sided, that people can express contradictory feelings, that family influences on a person are formative but often out of awareness, and that actions, like a slip of the tongue, are unconsciously motivated. So the issue is not whether or not we can speculate, but on what grounds and through what methods we come to our conclusions. I would be interested to hear what people think of this kind of reasoning about political figures.


  1. Larry your thesis is interesting, and worthy of consideration. Mischievously, I wonder about the meaning of your own slip in the third paragraph where you refer to Ryan/Romany. Is this a presidential team of gypsies?

  2. That is a funny! The newspapers are reporting how invigorated Romney appears now that he has selected Ryan as his running mate. I think this is consistent with my hypothesis. Also his campaign staff argued against his choice, suggesting that his decision has some idiosyncratic or psychodynamic roots.