It was uncanny: the honeymoon was still going on as 2010 began. Intelligent people talked about Mitt’s Middle Way without smirking, and Romney Democrats wore I’M WIT’ MITT! T-shirts. His approval ratings were climbing toward 70 percent, and when the pundits launched their instant analysis of his first State of the Union, it was clear that he had hit a rhetorical home run. “I’m sorry if this sounds a little corny,” Romney had said at the start of the speech, as the TV camera panned over his beautiful wife, his five beautiful sons, his five daughters-in-law, and his fourteen beautiful grandchildren in the House gallery, “but I know that every American feels it—we’re blessed to be living in this New Era of Good Feelings.” He proceeded to repeat the phrase again and again, as he credited President Gore for “laying such crucial foundations for our success” with the Energy Security and Environment Act and “presiding over the resolution of the conflicts in Afghanistan and the republics of the former Iraq,” when he thanked the House and Senate for enabling “our absolutely super first year in office,” and nine times more.
By the end of the night the hashtag #NEGF was the top trending topic on Twitter. When it was later reported that the president’s NEGF brainstorm had come from reading the new Jon Meacham biography of Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism during the original Era of Good Feelings in the 1820s, the resulting pseudo-controversy lasted barely one news cycle. Sure, people made fun of the president’s catchphrase, “Let’s not harsh America’s mellow,” but that didn’t mean they disagreed. It wasn’t that most Americans cottoned so much to Romney personally. Rather, the pundits’ conventional wisdom was that the whole Reagan-Clinton likability thing was an artifact of the last century—that eight years of Gore had habituated Americans to respecting and reelecting a competent president they wouldn’t necessarily want to have a beer with.
Not that it wasn’t entertaining to make fun of Romney. Stephen Colbert, of course, became the superstar cast member of Saturday Night Live on the basis of his astonishing impersonation. And when President Romney appeared on the ABC News comedy-variety show reinvented by Colbert’s former boss—Nightline With Jon Stewart—and pretended to be Colbert pretending to be Romney, he seemingly once and for all disarmed the hipster and chattering classes. “Auto-snark,” the president called it (courtesy of press secretary Peggy Noonan), with a wink.
But then, of course, the national good mood abruptly and hideously ended on the fifteenth of March, when the two Al Qaeda suicide bombers from Yemen brought down the planes over Buffalo and Los Angeles. The finger-pointing was instant and ferocious, all of it directed at the Romney Administration. Why had the CIA and Homeland Security not acted on the warnings from Saudi intelligence? Why had President Romney personally overruled his TSA administrator’s “distasteful” plan for enhanced airport pat-downs?
After the Ides Attacks, it seemed as if a year and a half of bottled-up political bile and toxins, perhaps a delayed reaction to the trauma of the financial crisis, had been uncorked. Treasury Secretary Michael Bloomberg, whom President Romney had kept on from the Gore team, was no longer the can-do tough-choice-making rebuilder of the post-meltdown economy. Instead, he’d become an imperious multibillionaire who’d said “what’s good for General Motors is not necessarily good for the country” when he rejected the bailouts and convinced President Romney to let India’s Tata Motors buy GM and had encouraged the Chinese auto consortium to acquire Ford. Instead of being grateful that unemployment had come down from 13.7 percent in early 2009, people suddenly remembered that they ought to be upset that it was still nearly 10 percent. And “RomneyCare” suddenly turned from a fond nickname to a snarled pejorative as Americans, faced with the new health-care system’s unfamiliar bureaucracy and “rationing,” developed buyer’s remorse.
Both the right and left started noisily rediscovering their antipathy to Romney and his split-the-difference middle way. Conservatives called him a compromised, compromising RINO; liberals said he was just another country-club Republican (“the Great Brainwasher,” as Paul Krugman never stopped calling him). In, June the president gave both sides a perfect opportunity to crystallize and redouble their loathing—with his misbegotten proposal (“in a month when some Americans commemorate homosexual pride”) to create separate gay brigades and gay squadrons in each of the military branches for homosexual service members uncomfortable with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” (The Pentagon acronym for the plan—suc, for “segregated unit cohesion”—didn’t help.)
The Wide Awakes, a marginal protest freak show in 2003, exploded into a serious political force, the angry anti-Romney tail wagging the dog of the grassroots GOP. Over the summer, they began to back hard-line candidates for the midterm elections. Repealing the “socialist Gore-Romney energy tax” became the conservatives’ unbudging demand, even though those revenues were the only thing keeping the federal budget deficit from ballooning to $300 billion. Romney started throwing bones to the right, appointing former Alaska governor Sarah Palin as Interior secretary, but they did nothing to slow the momentum of Mike Huckabee’s all but announced campaign for the GOP nomination. Come November, the House and Senate Republican minorities turned more solidly right-wing than ever, and Huckabee’s populist and protectionist impulses—as well as his former Baptist pastor’s implicit anti-Mormonism—were positioning him perfectly. As for the Democrats tacking toward 2012, it was no contest. The 3/15 attacks had turned Hillary Rodham’s hawkishness as vice-president from a liability among the liberal base into an enormous political asset, especially with swing voters.
During former President Gore’s appearance on Good Morning America to talk about his new memoir, Decision Points, he gave his now-familiar answers to the now-familiar questions: saying that “Tipper needed to find her own bliss” when he was asked if the presidency itself had undermined his marriage, that he’d given “no thought whatsoever” to speculation he might win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for his work on alternative energies and Iraqi partition, that “it would be inappropriate at this stage to endorse either of my good friends” in the race for the Democratic nomination. Off the air during the commercial break, however, he was more frank. He leaned in close to Diane Sawyer. “First week in December, I happen to have the presidential suite booked at the Grand Hôtel Stockholm—just saying. As for 2012, I love Hillary like an older sister, but I think Barack Obama would make a fantastic President. I honestly think the country is ready.”