Monday, November 12, 2012

The failure of Mitt Romney

By Michael J.W. Stickings

At The New York Review of Books, Garry Wills makes the case that Mitt Romney didn't just lose an election, he lost his very honor in the process-- and that unlike most previous presidential election losers he doesn't really have anything to give back, so dramatically did he sell his soul to try to win:

What public service do we expect from Mitt Romney? He will no doubt return to augmenting his vast and hidden wealth, with no more pesky questions about where around the world it is stashed, or what taxes (if any) he paid, carefully sheltered from the rules his fellow citizens follow.


What vestige of a backbone is Romney left with? Things he was once proud of -- health-care guarantees, opposition to noxious emissions, support of gay rights and women's rights, he had the shamelessness to treat as matters of shame all through his years-long crawl to the Republican nomination.

Other defeated candidates compiled stellar records after they lost. Two of them later won the Nobel Prize -- Jimmy Carter for international diplomacy, Al Gore for his environmental advocacy. John Kerry is still an important voice for the principles he has always believed in as a Democrat. Michael Dukakis carries on as the college professor he always was, with no need to reject or rediscover any of the policies he championed. Robert Dole joined with McGovern in international nutritional projects.

None of these men engineered a wholesale repudiation of their former principles. Romney, on the contrary, did not let earlier positions grow -- enriching, say, his experience of health care legislation to give his approach greater refinement or focus. He just tried to erase the whole matter from his record.


Many losing candidates became elder statesmen of their parties. What lessons will Romney have to teach his party? The art of crawling uselessly? How to contemn 47 percent of Americans less privileged and beautiful than his family? How to repudiate the past while damaging the future? It is said that he will write a book. Really? Does he want to relive a five-year-long experience of degradation? What can be worse than to sell your soul and find it not valuable enough to get anything for it? His friends can only hope he is too morally obtuse to realize that crushing truth. Losing elections is one thing. But the greater loss, the real loss, is the loss of honor. 

This is pretty harsh analysis, but it's hard to find fault with it. Romney is essentially a plutocrat (or a wannabe plutocrat), a successful vulture capitalist who build on the wealth his father made and then decided he wanted to be in politics. It made sense, initially, for him to be a moderate Republican in a liberal state like Massachusetts, and really he was just a throwback to business-oriented moderates of the past, business-oriented pragmatism having a long history in the Republican Party. And, further, it was perhaps admirable of him to turn to public service, not just in Massachusetts but before that for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Sure, public service meant advancing his pro-business outlook, building up his political arsenal, and continuing to profit from his former business associations (Bain, etc.), but at least there was consistency there.

But the Republican Party was changing, and the Republican he needed to be both in 2008 and even more so in 2012 was vastly different than the one he needed to be in Massachusetts in 2002, or that other pro-business types had had to be previously. That's when Romney changed, when he decided that winning meant selling out. Sure, the pro-business orientation remained, but everything else went crazy -- as Wills writes, it was "a five-year long experience of degradation."

I'm really not sure what will become of Romney now. Maybe Wills is right and he'll just go back to "augmenting his vast and hidden wealth." He may maintain a small profile in Republican circules, but it's not like Republicans like him all that much. Furthermore, it's not like he has much actual political experience to draw on, and it's not like he really seems to believe in anything other than his business interests.

Balloon Juice's mistermix wonders about Romney's legacy, finding Thomas Dewey, who lost in both 1944 and 1948, to be the best parallel: "Dewey pretty much stayed on the sidelines, turning down a nomination from LBJ for the Supreme Court, and concentrating on making money as a corporate lawyer. I imagine Mitt will follow a similar path."

Yes, perhaps so. Back in October 2011, Mustang Bobby wrote a post in which he called Romney "the perfect GOP establishment candidate; he's the 21st century Thomas E. Dewey, but without his charm or conviction." 

Which reminds me of a question I raised back in September:

Romney is the worst major-party presidential candidate since _______ ?

Forget Dukakis, Mondale, or McGovern. I went all the way back to the '30s:

So how far back do we have to go?

After all, the only thing keeping this race even somewhat close is the struggling economy, and that has nothing to do with Romney. Imagine how far ahead Obama would be if the economy were even just a tiny bit stronger at the moment.

So maybe Willkie in 1940, a business-oriented moderate who had to secure the support of right-wing isolationists in the GOP (yup, sounds a bit like Romney). But no. He, at least, was respectable out on the campaign trail, even if he stood little chance against FDR.

I'll go with Landon in 1936, another business-oriented type and by all accounts a terrible campaigner and generally inept politician. But even then, he didn't constantly embarrass himself, unlike Romney. He just didn't campaign for long stretches at a time, including for two months after he won the Republican nomination, and FDR crushed him in the election. He won only Maine and Vermont, losing the Electoral College vote 523 to 8.

Perhaps he was worse than Romney. Perhaps. 

It's easy to forget this now, but Romney really was a terrible candidate. Other than his performance in the first debate, where his shameless "Etch-A-Sketch" lying combined with Obama's disengagement to make it seem as if he was a credible candidate, what else was there?

Yes, this could mean that a stronger candidate would have won, but who was that candidate? Because one can make the case that Romney was really the only viable Republican choice in 2012, the only one who could pull the party together by saying whatever each of its constituent parts wanted to hear, and who would be prepared to sell that good 'ol Republican snake oil with a smile on his face. And yet with a still-struggling (if improving) economy he still lost badly.

Regardless, Romney's weakness as a candidate, and as a political actor generally, likely means that his post-election political career, such as he has one, will be pathetic and self-serving.

And as for any legacy, well, consider that a failure as well. 

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  • I really like this winding article style from you, Michael. And thanks for the link to the Wills article. I am a big fan. I'm very fond of his religious writing.

    The election really was Obama's to lose. I tend to think that even Chris Christie would have lost. (That would have made Sandy even more interesting!) However, there is no doubt that Romney was a bad candidate. And he had a fairly bad campaign staff. It is all for the best.

    I just hope that Obama doesn't sell us out!

    By Anonymous Frankly Curious, at 11:49 PM  

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