So Long, Mitt

Illustration by Karl Maier / Craig & Karl

Mitt Romney had been formally campaigning for president for seventeen months and informally for the past four years, but when the end neared, it only seemed to coax him into a state of agitated activity. Barack Obama wept, sentimentally, during his last speech on the trail, then spent Election Day playing basketball; Paul Ryan pronounced himself exhausted. Romney, eighteen times a grandfather, a full generation older than the other two men, added new campaign rallies, in Ohio and Pennsylvania. “I can’t imagine an election being lost by, let’s say, a few hundred votes, and you spent the day sitting around,” he said. Flying home afterward, Romney walked through his campaign plane and told reporters he’d just finished writing his victory speech, on his iPad. “1,118 words,” he announced. A few hours later, having lost, he walked onto the stage at the Boston Convention Center alone, without his running mate or his family by his side. Having organized his political life not around a movement or an ideology but the promise of his own competence, Romney in defeat could offer only the stricken, heartfelt apology of a man who has found himself wanting. “I so wish,” Romney said, “I so wish I had been able to fulfill your hopes.”

This race always felt as if it were personal for Romney, in some deep way—more personal, perhaps, than it was for Michele Bachmann or Paul Ryan or Rick Santorum, each of whom arrived as a symbol of a movement, with points to prove. Few who were close to Romney early in his life thought him a natural politician, and it is hard to imagine him having run for office if not for the accident of his birth. (“It always surprised me that he did that,” Mitt’s older brother, Scott, once told me; other close friends detail how Mitt had struggled to resolve what he actually believed about basic moral issues such as abortion.) When Romney did enter public life, it seemed to reveal some lingering patrilineal psychodrama, an effort to redeem his revered father, and to succeed where he had failed.

In this campaign, a kind of sentimental yearning crept in, one that felt both strange and genuine—a pining for an older, more perfect America. “Believe in America” was Romney’s slogan, and though banal, this often seemed both the core and the extent of his own motivation. A candidate who praises the trees in Michigan for being exactly the right height is a candidate who carries a fixed mental image of a perfect America. Tunelessly, repeatedly, long after it was a joke, he would sing the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” at campaign rallies.

At his best, Romney could convey a sense of profound alarm at how rapidly the country was deteriorating, at the violence that had been done to it. Rattling off a statistical roll of suffering—job losses, diminished opportunities—he had an aristocrat’s keen sense of decline. In Wisconsin and New Hampshire, in the last days of his long endurance campaign, Romney kept telling his audiences that they didn’t have to settle. “We don’t have to live like this,” he said. As an alternative to their crisis, he offered himself. At the beginning of the second debate, he moved toward a young college student worried about pending unemployment. “I’m going to make sure you get a job,” Romney said. He seemed to mean it, never fully understanding that it was the same, more brutal corporate system he had once helped to pioneer whose full apparition now caused him such alarm.

The only thing keeping the country from becoming again as great as it had been, Romney told the assembled Republicans in his closing speeches, was “a lack of leadership.” Leadership has always had a particular meaning to Romney: an executive’s analytic decisiveness. Both his fortune and his public persona were assembled from the conviction that this skill is so essential and transferable that it renders all other skills secondary—that a consultant can understand a company better than those who run it; that a businessman’s narrow, clinical view of a problem is always better than a politician’s broader, emotional one.

In Romney’s worlds—the quiet rooms of business, the Mormon church, the less ideological politics of the state capital—the strength of this identity had made him a powerful man and a sometimes unlikely force for progress. But Obama delineated Romney’s blind spots by occupying the ground the governor never could, between the abstract language of first principles and the quotidian talk of policies—the realm of human experience. Though he understood what his supporters feared, Romney always spoke in his own voice—volunteering his sorrow, his patriotism, his five-point plan—and never in theirs. Obama offered his supporters something more modern: the humbling feeling that their experience was the essential one, that history was moving through them.

History was already swallowing Romney. Just after the election, having been driven home from his concession speech not by the Secret Service but by his eldest son, Tagg, Romney showed up to a staff good-bye breakfast at which he hadn’t been expected, according to the Times, choking up while he remembered his time on the trail, hanging around until everyone else had left. Even in congratulating Romney, Obama rendered him an antique, praising the instinct to serve that the former governor had inherited from his parents. And now, just a week after Romney seemed poised to become president, there is no segment of the Republican Party that could be called Romneyist. Paul Ryan and his young cohort—far more ideological, natural political animals—have their own emotional connection, and their politics deftly channel the bristling outsider individualism of their supporters. What Romney could offer was not a philosophy but something at once more intimate and more limited: only the capacities of a single individual, himself.

So Long, Mitt