There’s more to life than politics.
— Mitt Romney, Alfred E. Smith Dinner, October 2012
He stood for nothing and everything at the same time.
— Erick Erickson, RedState.com
DAVID FRUM, the conservative columnist, turned up on MSNBC’s “Hardball” last week to perform the double duty of offering post-election analysis and to promote his latest long-form published work, the e-book “Why Romney Lost.”
Frum told Matthews: “I actually started work on this book six weeks ago.”
Whichever it was doesn’t matter now. We’re left with a Democratic president lifted into American history with a demographic-spanning landslide re-election; a Republican party wandering the desert in search of itself; and one last look, a kind of political valedictory for Willard Mitt Romney, a man whose ego and sense of presidential inevitability were at just the right height for a pruning.
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Any overview of the Romney 2012 quest for the presidency needs to be just that, a wide view — a study not just of the gaffes and unforced errors that came to define his bid for the White House, but also the more foundational factors, the basic things that seemed to animate Romney throughout the campaign.
He doubled down on this qualification that wasn’t: He was the CEO and co-founder of Bain Capital. He was effectively the CEO of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games. He was also the CEO of the state of Massachusetts, but he spent so much time running away from that fact, it was never a Team Romney talking point — well, not much, anyway … until it didn’t matter. Until it was too late.
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ROMNEY’S EXPERTISE in the world of business was the unique selling proposition of his campaign; that’s what he brought to the table. In the primary season and beyond, his use of the words “experience in the private sector” was pretty much an everyday thing.
But much of that “experience” fell to pieces. Yes, he more or less single-handedly rescued the Salt Lake Games, bringing his turnaround skills to bear in an impressive way. But that genuinely remarkable achievement paled to great degree when compared with his time at Bain Capital, the private-equity asset strip-mining operation he co-founded. And with what Bain Capital really did to thousands of American workers. And with the, uh, sequestration of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in various international locations, from Ireland to the Cayman Islands — most of it profit from Bain-related enterprises.
Earlier this year, I wrote: “[…F]or all his purported expertise in the Private Sector, Mitt Romney is also the unfortunate beneficiary of the public’s perception of the downside of a free-market economy — that, rather than taking credit for creating jobs, Romney is seen as responsible for (or certainly complicit in) the ruthless efficiencies that take jobs away. Right or wrong, his business acumen is defined — in the public eye, anyway — by what’s been lost or downsized, rather than by what’s been gained or enhanced.
“This may be just a messaging problem or something more foundational to his campaign, but for now it’s clear there’s a fundamental disconnect between Mitt Romney and the populism he professes.
“And there’s nothing to be done about this. There’s no way to spin or tweak this narrative because it’s organic to what Mitt Romney is, and it’s central to what he believes he brings to the 2012 presidential campaign.”
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That sense of being the smartest one in the room is, in and of itself, not a deal-breaker. Every presidential candidate buys into that, in his or her own way. But Romney also imparted that sense of really, truly believing he was better than everyone else. Above everyone around him. To him, the laws of political gravity didn’t apply. There was no penalty for contradiction of statements made the month (or the week) before. The need to clearly establish himself and his policy ideas for the voters wasn’t necessary. He was to be the anointed one. Regardless of what he said or didn’t say during the campaign, it was “his turn” to be the nominee. It was “his turn” to be president.
This faith in a divine right of plutocrats was evident in everything he did. In his mind, everything was all arranged. Right up to the very end: In the D.C. news blog Capitol Hill Blue, Callie Moran reported last week that “Romney was so confident of victory against President Barack Obama that he spent $25,000 for victory fireworks, had already drawn up a list of White House appointments and took it easy on election day when his opponents were still working hard to get out the vote.”
“He was supremely confident and delayed conceding the race as long as possible because he just didn’t believe he would lose,” one senior Romney aide told Moran. “It was overconfidence based on inaccurate assumptions and flawed data.”
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THAT OVERWEENING confidence led to Romney’s worst mistakes and lapses of judgment on the campaign trail. This capacity for self-sabotage was never more obvious than it was in the now-famous series of videos taken surreptitiously at a May fundraising dinner in Boca Raton, Fla. In one of the videos, Romney lays out what amounts to a worldview — a Manichaean, zero-sum-game perspective of the nation that casts 47 percent of the people in the United States into economic perdition, left to fend for themselves and deserving of everything they got.
“The Republican Party, and apparently Mitt Romney, too, has shifted over toward a much more hyper-individualistic and atomistic social view — from the Reaganesque language of common citizenship to the libertarian language of makers and takers. There’s no way the country will trust the Republican Party to reform the welfare state if that party doesn’t have a basic commitment to provide a safety net for those who suffer for no fault of their own.
“... Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney.”
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The warning signs and red flags were no surprise to his fellow conservatives (at least the ones who were paying attention). Consider what Erick Erickson, the editor of the conservative must-read RedState.com, observed at that Web site on Nov. 8, 2011. A year ago:
There is no issue I can find on which Mitt Romney has not taken both sides. He is neither liberal nor conservative. He is simply unprincipled. The man has no core beliefs other than in himself. You want him to be tough? He’ll be tough. You want him to be sensitive? He’ll be sensitive. You want him to be for killing the unborn? He’ll go all in on abortion rights ...
Mitt Romney is the silly putty of politicians — press on him real hard and he’ll take on whatever image you press into him until the next group starts pressing.
Voters may not like Barack Obama, but by the time Obama is done with Romney they will not trust Mitt Romney. And voters would rather [have] the guy they don’t like than the guy they don’t trust.
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“Sheryl Harris, a voluble 52-year-old with a Virginia drawl, voted twice for George W. Bush. Raised Baptist, she is convinced -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- that President Barack Obama, a practicing Christian, is Muslim.
“So in this year's presidential election, will she support Mitt Romney? Not a chance.
“ ‘Romney's going to help the upper class,’ said Harris, who earns $28,000 a year as activities director of a Lynchburg senior center. ‘He doesn't know everyday people, except maybe the person who cleans his house.’
“She'll vote for Obama, she said: ‘At least he wasn't brought up filthy rich.’”
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THROUGHOUT the campaign, Romney was likened in the media to different figures in popular culture; he was by turns described as the incarnations of Charles Foster Kane and Gordon Gekko, Thurston Howell III and Lonesome Rhodes.
But more than anything, more than anyone, Mitt Romney was Leonard Zelig.
Fans of Woody Allen movies will recognize the name of the central character in the Woodman’s 1983 comedy classic “Zelig.” In the film, Leonard Zelig is a nondescript man with a transient-personality disorder, a man who, in a deep desire to be accepted, takes on the physical and cultural attributes of those around him — with profound existential consequences.
So it was, to some degree, for the former Massachusetts governor. Only worse. A lack of consistency from one week to the next; a shadowy, secretive approach to implementation of policy proposals; a desire to satisfy every audience; and an indifference to satisfying anyone besides himself finally combined to render Mitt Romney nothing more or less than matter and anti-matter in the same space, an imploded man, one whose contrary states of everythingness and nothingness violated the physics of American politics.
Nature abhors a vacuum; so do the voters at election time.
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The man with great wealth secreted offshore, the man who would preside over the American economy doesn’t have enough confidence in the American economy to keep his money in the American economy.
The man who makes about $57,000 a day on investment income goes on a debate stage and offers a dumb $10,000 bet to the governor of Texas. Not $10 or $100. Ten thousand dollars.
The man who dissed the XXX Olympic Summer Games and the country they were held in indulges his wife in a dancing horse entered into competition at those Olympics — a $77,700 tax deduction, a one-off line item that’s about $27,000 more than the median household annual income in the United States.
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HE WANTED the prize of the presidency more than he valued the prize of the presidency. He invented a gilded world of his own making; then he tried to run our American world on his terms, with no apology. He had no ideas that he was willing to explain and expand on; we were told time and time again that his word was good enough; we were told we’d have to trust him on the details, which he’d work out with Congress after he was elected.
He concocted an identity, and then he came up with another one and another and another until nothing was left of Mitt Romney except a man we couldn’t recognize because, it was abundantly clear, he didn’t recognize himself. And in the hall in Boston on Election Night, as a crowd of supporters stood in shock after absorbing the loss, Mitt Romney walked out, offered his gracious perfunctories ... and he’s gone. In his last chameleon act, the candidate vanishes, like the presidential campaign that was philosophically and ethically only half there to begin with.
This is how the campaign ends. Not with a victory but with a disappearance.
Image credits: Romney top: MSNBC. Romney at Bain & Co.: unknown, probably originating with Bain & Company. Romney at October debate: CNN. Romney on Etch a Sketch: gvartwork.com. Zelig poster: © 1983 Orion Pictures/Warner Bros. Fair-use rationale: Film's central character has a chameleon nature compared here to a public figure seeking the presidency. Romney bottom: Screengrab from September 2012 press conference.