Mitt Romney is already slithering into the mists of history, or at least La Jolla, gone and soon to be forgotten. A weightless figure unloved and distrusted by even his own supporters, he was always destined, win or lose, to be a transitory front man for a radical-right GOP intent on barreling full-speed down the Randian path laid out by its true 2012 standard-bearer, Paul Ryan. But as was said of another unsuccessful salesman who worked the New England territory, attention must be paid to Mitt as the door slams behind him in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s brilliant victory. Though Romney has no political heirs in his own party or elsewhere, he does leave behind a cultural legacy of sorts. He raised Truthiness to a level of chutzpah beyond Stephen Colbert’s fertile imagination, and on the grandest scale. That a presidential hopeful so cavalierly mendacious could get so close to the White House, winning some 48 percent of the popular vote, is no small accomplishment. The American weakness that Romney both apotheosized and exploited in achieving this feat—our post-fact syndrome where anyone on the public stage can make up anything and usually get away with it—won’t disappear with him. A slicker liar could have won, and still might.
Aall politicians lie, and some of them, as Bob Kerrey famously said of Bill Clinton in 1996, are “unusually good” at it. Every campaign (certainly including Obama’s) puts up ads that stretch or obliterate the truth. But Romney’s record was exceptional by any standard. The blogger Steve Benen, who meticulously curated and documented Mitt’s false statements during 2012, clocked a total of 917 as Election Day arrived. Those lies, which reached a crescendo with the last-ditch ads accusing a bailed-out Chrysler of planning to ship American jobs to China, are not to be confused with the Romney flip-flops. The Etch-A-Sketches were a phenomenon of their own; if the left and right agreed about anything this year, it was that trying to pin down where Mitt “really” stood on any subject was a fool’s errand. His biography was no less Jell-O-like: There were the still-opaque dealings at Bain, and those Olympics, and a single (disowned) term in public service, and his churchgoing—and what else had he been up to for 65 years? We never did see those tax returns. We never did learn the numbers that might validate the Romney-Ryan budget. Given that Romney had about as much of a human touch with voters as an ATM, it sometimes seemed as if a hologram were running for president. Yet some 57 million Americans took him seriously enough to drag themselves to the polls and vote for a duplicitous cipher. Not all of this can be attributed to the unhinged Obama hatred typified by Mary Matalin’s postelection characterization of the president as “a political narcissistic sociopath.”
As GOP politicians and pundits pile on Romney in defeat, they often argue that he was done in by not being severely conservative enough; if only he’d let Ryan be Ryan, voters would have been won over by right-wing orthodoxy offering a clear-cut alternative to Obama’s alleged socialism. In truth, Romney was a perfect embodiment of the current GOP. As much as the Republican Party is a radical party, and a nearly all-white party, it has also become the Fantasyland Party. It’s an isolated and gated community impervious to any intrusions of reality from the “real America” it solipsistically claims to represent. This year’s instantly famous declaration by the Romney pollster Neil Newhouse that “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers” crystallized the mantra of the entire GOP. The Republican faithful at strata both low and high, from Rush’s dittoheads to the think-tank-affiliated intellectuals, have long since stopped acknowledging any empirical evidence that disputes their insular worldview, no matter how grounded that evidence might be in (God forbid) science or any other verifiable reality, like, say, Census reports or elementary mathematics. No wonder Romney shunned the word Harvard, which awarded him two degrees, even more assiduously than he did Mormon.
At the policy level, this is the GOP that denies climate change, that rejects Keynesian economics, and that identifies voter fraud where there is none. At the loony-tunes level, this is the GOP that has given us the birthers, websites purporting that Obama was lying about Osama bin Laden’s death, and not one but two (failed) senatorial candidates who redefined rape in defiance of medical science and simple common sense. It’s the GOP that demands the rewriting of history (and history textbooks), still denying that Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” transformed the party of Lincoln into a haven for racists. Such is the conservative version of history that when the website Right Wing News surveyed 43 popular conservative bloggers to determine the “worst figures in American history” two years ago, Jimmy Carter, Obama, and FDR led the tally, all well ahead of Benedict Arnold, Timothy McVeigh, and John Wilkes Booth.