Mitt Romney's 'Them' Problem

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Presidential elections are decided in the first-person plural and the second person. Anyone operating in the third person is in trouble.

Mitt Romney's campaign on Wednesday released an ad featuring the candidate speaking straight to the camera, all by himself:

It's not the most polished video in the world. But you can see the thinking behind it. The candidate will directly address the voters, making a spare, authentic, heart-to-heart appeal that he cares about how "too many Americans" are suffering.

And then he says it.

"President Obama and I both care about poor and middle-class families. The difference is my policies will make things better for them."

Them.

Mitt Romney keeps talking about the people whose votes he needs as "them."

In the 47 percent video, it was "those people."

"I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," Romney said.

But presidential elections are always about the grand national us. They are about we, the people. And when it come to a candidate, they are about me and you.

As Bill Clinton famously said, "For too long we've been told about 'us' and 'them.' Each and every election we see a new slate of arguments and ads telling us that 'they' are the problem, not 'us.' But there can be no 'them' in America. There's only us."

That statement elides a lot of social divisions, but Clinton was right that as a matter of politics that's how you have to talk win. Even George W. Bush ran as "a uniter, not a divider."

The problem with Romney's campaign is not just a secret video, or media- and PAC-hyped candidate gaffes. It's an approach to talking to and about people in a way that is othering, rather than empathetic -- so much so that in direct appeal to middle-class voters, Romney doesn't think to say (or, rather, no one on his campaign thinks to have him say), "The difference is my policies will make things better for you."

The vast majority of Americans identify as middle-class or working class.

If Romney wasn't talking to them in this spot -- and by his language he made clear that he was not -- who was he talking to?

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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