Mitt Romney is the archetypal Harvard alum. He went there for law school and business school. After graduating he joined the Boston Consulting Group, which heavily recruits Harvard MBAs. He went on to amass a fortune through consulting and private equity work in the Boston area.
As Benjy Sarlin notes in TPM, “Three of his sons attended Harvard and he has donated over $50,000 to the university. His campaign lists over a dozen advisers with Harvard ties.” Romney has also publicly sung Harvard’s praises. With his stiffly coiffed hair and habit of using awkward jargon, Romney is the epitome of America’s academically credentialed business elite.
And that’s the problem. Romey is an uncomfortable fit for a political party deeply suspicious of intellectualism and cosmopolitanism. So he has made bashing President Obama’s ties to Harvard–Obama also attended Harvard Law School–a feature of his stump speeches. He regularly tosses out the meaningless complaint that Obama takes “advice from the Harvard faculty lounge.” Sometimes he even does so the day before bragging that a Harvard professor supports one of his own plans. The slur is fundamentally silly, and all the more so coming from Romney.
On Thursday, as Sarlin reports, he went after Obama for having maybe spent “too much time at Harvard.” Romney, of course, spent even more time there than did Obama. (Romney’s combined degree program was four years, Obama spent three years in law school.)
But if you think spouting such laughably hypocritical nonsense is bad for Romney, think again. Following the mantra, often attributed to Karl Rove, that a politician must attack his opponent’s strength, Romney is trying to neutralize Obama’s biographical advantages.
Obama’s Harvard pedigree, of course, plays differently than Romey’s. Romney is the son of an auto executive, George Romney, who became governor of Michigan. Going to an expensive graduate school comes across as merely fulfilling his life’s destiny. That is all the more true because Romney only used his degrees to make piles of money. Obama, the bi-racial son of a single mother, went to Harvard after working as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. He wrote movingly about those experiences in his lovely memoir, Dreams from My Father.
Someone with a sense of shame would, in Romney’s shoes, avoid calling Obama an elitist. But Romney is utterly shameless in his pandering. And, as I’ve written, that is his greatest asset. Romney will say absolutely anything if it is the right thing to say politically.
Biographical jiu-jitsu as ridiculous as Romney’s has worked before. Consider George W. Bush. The son of a president and grandson of a senator, he ran portrayed himself as a Washington outsider and his opponent, Al Gore, as an alien creature of the Beltway. In 2004 Bush, a draft-dodger, attacked decorated Vietnam veteran John Kerry as anti-military elitist. And it worked. So laugh at Romney’s silliness if you want to, but the last laugh may be his.