For all his generic party-line qualities, Mitt Romney differs from the long line of alpha-white-male Republican nominees in one striking and possibly important way: He appears to be a genuine bibliophile. Some of his literary selections, to be sure, are discouraging (Decision Points, by George W. Bush), frightening (America Alone, by xenophobic conservative Mark Steyn), or downright creepy (Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard, which Romney has listed as one of his five favorite books). But Romney’s reading list also includes at least a few genuinely serious works that might help a prospective president understand the world. The modern Republican presidential field has run the gamut from nonintellectual (Eisenhower, Reagan, Ford) to aggressively anti-intellectual (Bush, Nixon). Romney is the first GOP nominee in memory to show any sign of having the intellectual confidence to sample the forbidden fruits of the liberal scholarly elite.
At the same time, Romney’s intellectual self-confidence appears to be badly misplaced. He likes to boast on the campaign trail of books he has devoured, but the conclusions he reports are wildly at odds with what the books actually say.
Romney’s comprehension problem first emerged this spring, when he began citing The Escape Artists, Noam Scheiber’s account of the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis. In Romney’s telling, the book contains a startling admission by Lawrence Summers to the author that Obama undertook health-care reform despite believing that it would slow down the recovery. “It means,” reported Romney, “they went into this knowing that when they passed Obamacare, it was going to make life harder for the American people.” Actually, in the passage in question, Summers said just the opposite—that any trade-off between health care and economic growth “was unlikely in my view.”
Romney also regularly credits two books for shaping his thinking on the root causes of national prosperity: Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, by David Landes. Romney’s fascination with these tomes turned into a campaign snafu during his recent trip to the Middle East, when he cited them as an explanation for why the Palestinians have lagged economically behind Israel. In Romney’s summation, Diamond’s book argues that some countries have attained prosperity because they are blessed with natural resources (“There is iron ore on the land and so forth”), while Landes attributes differences to culture. Israel has a culture that encourages success; the Palestinians don’t.
In fact, both Diamond and Landes attribute economic differences in significant measure to underlying physical conditions. Diamond emphasizes the availability of domesticable crops and animals in some regions, which allowed their citizens to form cities at an earlier stage. (Iron ore doesn’t really play a major role.) Landes suggests that tropical heat creates higher rates of disease and makes hard work more difficult, thus encouraging slave labor. Landes emphasizes cultural differences, but as an outgrowth of material differences.
What makes Romney’s peculiar bibliophilia so tantalizing is that it hints at the possibility that he operates outside the normal epistemic channels of his party. The Republican Party has increasingly closed itself off from academic and technocratic sources of knowledge: climate science that believes carbon emissions are warming the globe, macroeconomic studies that suggest deficit spending can stimulate the economy, budget forecasting, and on and on. The conservative movement’s idea of an intellectual is a figure like Romney's VP pick, Paul Ryan, whose influences are confined to explicitly right-wing sources. Ryan would not be citing the work of a Noam Scheiber or a Jared Diamond.
Romney, by contrast, respects the legitimacy of the liberal intellectual elite enough to consult it. Paradoxically, he is an educated, highly accomplished, and apparently intelligent man who searches for knowledge in the right places, yet comes away empty-handed.