Miracle Mike Sebba sent me this long postmortem of the Romney 2012 campaign, in which the candidate’s son says:
He wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life. He had no desire to . . . run. If he could have found someone else to take his place . . . he would have been ecstatic to step aside. He is a very private person who loves his family deeply and wants to be with them, but he has deep faith in God and he loves his country, but he doesn’t love the attention.
That’s saying something, since Tagg Romney meets only people who might plausibly become president. Why is Mitt Romney so much more likable in defeat? Call it the Citizen Kane effect: a rich person who wants more is a scary monster, but a rich person who has been disappointed is the human condition.
Or call it systemic mismanagement of his campaign. According to the Globe, Tagg compiled a list of twelve ordinary people his father had helped in significant ways, but strategist Stuart Stevens shelved it in order to focus on what Romney proposed to do as president. “When you come into a job interview, you don’t start showing family pictures,” Stevens said after the election. Nor do you present dozens of PowerPoints explaining why the other guy in the waiting room is a socialist, but no analogy is perfect.
Stevens’s decision was based, in part, on polls that showed a mere 20% of voters thought the country was going in the right direction. That seemed like a gift to the Republican challenger, but it never became more than a liability for his opponent. David Axelrod believes it was because the Romney campaign failed to ground their policies in a consistent biography of their candidate.
“So much of his life was kind of walled off from use,” he told the Globe. Romney’s faith was off-limits because he was Mormon; his business record was inextricable from the stigma attached to Bain, and his governorship contradicted several of his 2012 policy positions. Axelrod said he kept waiting for the moment when the Romney campaign defined its candidate, but that moment never came. In the absence of a strong biographical narrative, Mitt Romney became an avatar for his platform and, most terrifyingly, his party.
Here is where we move out of information and into conjecture, reuniting with a theory we haven’t heard from in a while: the Republican primaries hurt Romney in the generals. Perhaps you remember the six-month period when the GOP candidates, like children eating worms at camp, dared one another to be more and more conservative. As with most games of chicken, Romney won by not playing. Aside from the inexplicably doomed Jon Huntsman, he was the least insane of the bunch.
Yet the party whose nomination he won had convinced independents that it was further right than it had been since the 1920s. If you accept this premise and couple it with Axelrod’s theory that Romney failed to present a cohesive biography to the electorate, Romney’s loss begins to look like a loss for the post-2008 GOP. That is the party that has made Congress a tar pit, after all. It is the one that made its main legislative priority repealing a health care law that the majority of voters support. And it is the one that Romney represented—more than he represented Mormonism, entrepreneurship or being governor of Massachusetts.
Maybe that’s why I like Romney so much better since he lost the election. He was a vessel for the new conservatism then, and he is a vessel for the repudiation of that attitude now. I am fascinated by analyses of what went wrong with Romney 2012, a campaign that launched under historically favorable conditions and maintained its soaring confidence until the end. The only man who wasn’t sure seems to have been the candidate himself. In that regard, he was more like us than like them. And that is the essence of sympathy, right there.