by Avi Davis
The first time I met Mitt Romney, he was Governor of Massachusetts and I was a visiting fellow at Harvard. A friend, who was a journalist at a Boston paper, invited me to attend a press briefing the Governor was giving regarding his position on gay marriage. During the year I lived in Cambridge, I followed Romney and had become convinced that he was a man with a huge political future before him.
After I met him, I became certain.
Romney stated his position on gay marriage succinctly and forthrightly and with a measure of sympathy for the gay community. Yet he stood steadfastly against gay marriage and managed to convince most of us that he was able to read the pulse of the times on the issue. He seemed to be to be a man of substance and commitment who knew and understood politics. He appeared to know how to deal with a skeptical electorate whose blue state credentials remained unchanged by his election as a conservative Governor. I felt he knew his audience and understood his constituency.
But more than that, I felt he had presence.
Tall, with a fine figure, a winning smile and a warm speaking voice, he presented to me as more telegenic than any prospective presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy. But in distinct contrast to the true JFK he was, I discovered, a steadfast family man with a committed spiritual life – personal characteristics which seemed to mark him apart from most of the conservative politicians I had met. He had skillfully navigated around the gay marriage issue and although his state sponsored medical insurance plan gave evidence of troubling liberal tendencies, the good grades he had received from conservative pundits – and even from my journalist friend, seemed to suggest that he had the political skills and instincts to compete on a national stage.
It was with this sense of the man’s destiny that I eagerly anticipated his candidacy in the GOP primaries in 2008. When I learned of his exemplary record of achievement at Bain Capital and of his devoted work in rescuing the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, it became clear that here was a manager who could inspire loyalty and get things done. Not since Herbert Hoover had a presidential candidate appeared on the national scene with such an abundance of financial acumen and the ability to take charge of large, troubled projects and guide them to completion.
That his candidacy fizzled in 2008 was a disappointment but not a surprise. I marked it down then to inexperience in the rough water of national politics. He didn’t seem yet sufficiently toughened for the spitfire tactics of his GOP adversaries nor as well prepared. But I believed that by the time 2012 rolled around, at the still sprightly age of 64, he would have developed the skills to take on his adversaries with consummate skill, charm the media and the liberal institutions who had so demonized George W. Bush and deftly slash a path to the GOP nomination and then the White House.
I was wrong. The brilliant manager of funds and people could not summon those skills to run a brilliant presidential campaign. He often appeared exhausted by it and not to particularly enjoy the endless amount of glad handing and back slapping that came with the nomination. There was good reason for such exhaustion. He had been savaged by the circular firing squad which became the GOP nomination process of that year, with his successes at Bain being used against him by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry who labeled him a ruthless capitalist unconcerned with the lives of ordinary working people and whose jobs he would extinguish with a stroke of a pen. This was of course a complete fabrication and a selfish, hypocritical tactic. Yet it had done its damage and the ruthless Obama campaign immediately seized upon it and then relentlessly pounded Romney on the issue for the remainder of the presidential campaign.
The Obamaites went to enormous lengths to spray mud on Romney’s spotless career and personality, even bringing up an episode from three decades earlier when the Romney family moved house and had placed their dog on the roof of the family car during a transfer from one state to another. The image found a surprising resonance amongst centrists – one of whom told a friend of mine following the election that she could not bring herself to vote for a man who was so cruel to animals.
But the characterization of Romney as a robber baron, gleefully torching companies and then jettisoning their work forces, was the image that adhered and was never sufficiently answered. Rather than launching a counter offensive that aggressively defended his record as a businessman who had contributed immensely to U.S. prosperity in the 1980s and 90s, the Romney campaign let the charges gather force and they began to stick. They clouded the true character of Romney, a man of great personal integrity and generosity – and created an image of a ruthless capitalist whose only interest as President would be in protecting his rich donors.
The public never got a chance to see the very human side of Mitt Romney and appreciate his truly admirable abilities in earning his self made fortune. The media built an effective barrier to inquisitive eyes and deflected attention to a more nefarious portrait lifted straight out of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
Meanwhile, in the general election campaign, Romney faced a failed President who offered one of the weakest presidential records in modern U.S. history. Economic growth was anemic, an extremely divisive national health care law was roiling the nation and in foreign affairs restive rogue nations were taking advantage of the absence of the world’s lone super power from the international stage. Obama had no other true legislative or foreign policy accomplishments to speak of. More than even this, during the electoral campaign, the president never articulated a cogent plan for his second term, preferring to use his national platform to demonize his opponent.
Anyone in the swing states or sitting on the fence should have been able to see all this, but they didn’t. They were not helped in any significant way by Romney’s two final national debate performances. Whereas he had delivered a stunning blow to Obama in the first debate, outpointing a flat footed Obama at every turn, in the following contests he failed to go on the offensive and deliver the knock out punch so many were expecting of him. Instead he landed soft blows, particularly in the third debate, even sounding conciliatory and appreciative of Obama on many foreign policy issues. Obama seized this gift and used it to paint Romney as out of touch with ordinary Americans – reinforcing a persistent campaign theme.
Then came Hurricane Sandy which devastated large swathes of the eastern seaboard in the week before the election. Suddenly Barack Obama was able to project himself as the commander -in -chief he had failed to become in his first four years in office. Romney, hoping to look reasonable and concerned, suspended his campaign just at the moment he needed it to switch into high gear. And then Chris Christie, the flamboyant GOP governor of New Jersey, nailed his coffin shut by insisting on lauding the president for his participation in his state’s rescue and recovery from the fearful damage left in Sandy’s wake.
The bitter disappointment of election night on November 6, 2012 was compounded when it was discovered that the sophisticated voter turn out software that the Romney campaign had promised to deploy to encourage a stronger younger conservative participation in the election crashed, never to be revived. GOP activists throughout the country were left stranded without the invaluable information that would have made it possible to rally the GOP base and encourage a march towards a possible victory.
Could Romney have done better? Perhaps. If he had chosen a better campaign team or if he had possessed better luck in not facing such a feckless bunch of GOP contenders in the primaries.
But part of Romney’s failure in 2012 rests at the very least with the man himself. Despite his family values, great financial accomplishments, executive experience, personal morality and good looks – despite them all – Romney lacked the two things which tend to elevate leaders above mere also rans – charisma and conviction. He was unable to project the air of a man who had a broad vision for America, who could speak passionately of its history and its mission in the world; who could convince voters that he could capably stand in the shoes of the greatest of American leaders – Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. He failed to compete against Obama’s renowned eloquence – racked with meaninglessness though it is – and his tone of confidence – false though it is – as matched against his own talents and skills.
This is perhaps because Romney was unable project true commitment to any particular worldview. A writer for a Washington weekly, who had been a some time speech writer for candidate Romney, commented to me that up close it was impossible to get any other impression of the man other than one of utter blandness. He came away from his experience thinking that Romney did not believe in very much at all – other than his suitability for being President. On the campaign trail, his impermeability to new ideas became legendary. Many other reports indicated that Romney was socially uncomfortable, often aloof and that he intensely disliked the unrelenting grind of campaigning.
These characteristics would not have differentiated him too greatly from some of the other middling presidents in America’s history. In the roster of national chief executives it might have ultimately positioned him as a capable steward rather than as an outstanding leader – alongside men such as William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge or Gerald Ford. But it would have certainly elevated him above the amateurish, churlish and intensely ideological Barack Obama, whose one term presidency would have evaporated as quickly as it had materialized and then consigned by commentators as an aberration in the long line of American patriots and capable chief executives who had previously entered the White House.
Which leads us to the approaching 2016 election and Romney’s decision, announced Friday, not to seek the GOP nomination for a third time. It was a good decision. In the two years that have passed since 2012, Romney has not distinguished himself as a firebrand critic of the President – a role which would have undoubtedly done much to overhaul his reputation as a policy wonk; or as a rigorous fair minded commentator who injected a broad body of knowledge about national policy into his writings. He wrote no books and made few public appearances – at least ones that garnered national attention.
So how could he have even considered a third run for presidency? That is one of those imponderable questions that might only be answered by the man himself. Having a strong donor base, a great family and a reputation as a party centrist, was clearly not enough. He needed to prove to us and to himself that he deserved to run for president for reasons other than his mere suitability for the job.
In the end the United States today does not need another William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge or Gerald Ford. In a time where the United States leadership is sorely absent in theaters of conflict around the world; when our domestic life is riven by divisions deeper than at any time than perhaps the Civil War; when our deficit has ballooned beyond the imaginings of even the most die hard cynic, the country desperately needs a President who can offer more than platitudes and capable executive experience – it needs a true leader who can inspire confidence and project a vision which can motivate a great nation to reclaim that greatness.
Sadly Mitt Romney, outstanding individual though he certainly is, is not that man. It is a good thing he recognized this himself and has taken himself out of the running so that a fresh candidate can advance the most vital mission in the world today – the saving of the American republic.