WASHINGTON -- At the end of his summer vacation last week, Mitt Romney got the question inevitable for anyone in the White House or hoping to get there: At Bradley's Hardware in Wolfeboro, N.H., Romney was asked if, at a time of such "grim economic news," he should be vacationing at all. Romney responded that if he became president, he would make sure all Americans get the "capacity to take a vacation now and then with their loved ones."
We're not supposed to begrudge our leaders their time away. Point taken. What people resent is how politicians carefully calculate when, where and for how long they'll take off to ZIP Codes that are cool in the summer, warm in the winter and generally inaccessible to Joe the Plumber.
On the other hand, catching an overhandled, overgroomed, and overprotected politico in a body of expensive water is one of the few chances those of us canoeing in a state park get to see the man inside the suit. (Or woman inside the pantsuit, as the case may be; see, for example, Hillary Clinton mini-golfing on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, hiking in Wyoming or dancing in her bathing suit in the U.S. Virgin Islands.) The photos of Romney whooshing across the lake on a water scooter were so revealing because they were so rare. His thighs are pasty! His hair moves! He likes turquoise for his swimming trunks!
The specter of Romney frolicking (later he was in a gigantic boat) in sight of his mansion unhinged the editors of The Wall Street Journal. Not only is the presumptive Republican nominee squandering a historic opportunity, they wrote, but just as President Barack Obama's campaign is successfully defining Romney as an out-of-touch offshoring elitist hiding money in the Cayman Islands, "the rich man obliged by vacationing this week at his lake-side home with a jet-ski cameo."
The Journal's editorial page usually celebrates moguls at play. In Romney's case it channeled the pain of campaign operatives who quake at the thought of their principals out of sight -- and, more important, mobile-phone range. It leads to nothing but trouble and embarrassing photographs. Think of Bill Clinton's flabby thighs in swimming trunks, Obama shirtlessly surfing in Hawaii, Jimmy Carter and the killer rabbit, John Kerry windsurfing after he blew in the wind over voting for funding for the war in Iraq before he voted against it.
Normal people -- the most significant voting bloc -- don't windsurf, or like people who do, or so pollsters would have us believe. The Vineyard combines everything normal people don't like: swells from the Acela corridor and pointy-heads from the Ivy League aboard non-motorized boats. Clinton aide Dick Morris was so alarmed by Clinton's Martha's Vineyard vacations that he forced the family to go to Wyoming and ride horses. Someone with an eye on Joe the Plumber told Obama to forgo his trip to the Vineyard this year.
To comply with the first rule of politics, Romney should be spending the summer defining himself before Obama finishes the job for him. Fueled by Obama campaign attack ads, the image of Romney as a heartless job outsourcer with the ethic of Gordon Gekko and temperament of Scrooge (he gives a lot to the Mormon Church but to no one else) is taking hold. Among swing-state voters who said the ads changed their minds, 76 percent now support the president, versus 16 percent for Romney.
Yet Romney is nothing if not fearless. He topped off his vacation by heading to New York's Hamptons for three fundraisers. Like Willie Sutton, Romney went there because that's where the money is. Where else to soak the rich but where the rich are soaking? Despite being behind in fundraising (in June, Obama collected $71 million to Romney's $106 million), the president decided the Hamptons were too dangerous a place to be seen in campaign season.
Romney goes all funny when the subject of money comes up, joking about having once been unemployed and about having multiple Cadillacs. He dismisses concerns about income inequality as the preoccupation of the "envy-oriented" and says the subject is something to be discussed in "quiet rooms."
In his defense, Republicans probably are more forgiving of candidates who flaunt their wealth -- so long as they observe certain guidelines:
* As much as possible, refer to each of your multiple homes as a family compound.
* Own, don't rent like the Democrats do. See, for example, Romney's lake, George W. Bush's ranch, Dwight Eisenhower's farm; also Clinton's and Obama's houses on Martha's Vineyard. (John Kennedy and Kerry are exceptions to this rule.)
* Stay inland (Romney, Bush, Ronald Reagan) or, if you must dunk in an ocean, do so in a swing state (Richard Nixon in Key Biscayne, Fla.) or the Pacific (Romney in the La Jolla enclave of San Diego).
* Recreate with high-RPM toys: snowmobiles, ATVs, speedboats, etc. Only wussy liberals waste time cross-country skiing, sailing and surfing.
Luckily for Romney, there were more pictures of his many grandchildren than his house. Tanned with good teeth and hair, they look like the Kennedys, who somehow escaped the effete label despite such decadent pursuits as tennis and yachting.
Republicans give their leaders more room to relax. Reagan took 349 days over eight years at his California ranch, and Bush topped him with 490 days at his ranch in Texas (make that 977 vacation days if you count time at Camp David). Democrats are just more anxious. Obama's time off this year will be as close to a staycation as his family will allow.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.