The Incredible Shrinking Mitt Romney
Less than two weeks after he lost the race for the Presidency, Mitt Romney’s impact on the Republican Party appears to have already disappeared:
There appears to be no Romney Republicanism to propagate. No Romney strategy to emulate. No Romney technology to ape. No generation shaped by his failed effort. And no Romney infrastructure to inherit, though he may still be asked to write and bundle quite a few checks. Romney’s bewildering post-election explanations of his defeat — Obama, he said, had bought off Americans — drew almost universal condemnation from leaders of his party, but the comments were more excuse than cause; party figures from Ari Fleischer to Bobby Jindal appeared to be waiting to kick Romney to the side of the road. The candidate did them a favor when he complained that Democrats had simply bought off young people and minority voters, a churlish line that erased any lingering Republican affinity for him as, when all else failed, a good-hearted guy.
Romney is being erased with record speed from his party’s books for three reasons. First, many Republicans backed him because they thought he had a good chance of winning; that appeal, obviously, is gone. Second, Romney had shallow roots, and few friends, in the national Republican Party. And those shallow roots have allowed Republicans to give him a new role: As a sort of bad partisan bank, freighted with all the generational positions and postures that they are looking to dump.
“Romney is now a toxic asset to unload,” the historian Jack Bohrer remarked Saturday. “The only interesting thing left to his story is how they dispose of him.”
The simplest reason for Romney’s quick fadeout is that his central promise was that he could win. He delivered immense fundraising prowess and ideological flexibility. He was never going to win partisan hearts like the two iconic, beloved losers of his father’s generation, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern.
“This is ever the sad fate of the ‘electability’ candidate who fails to get elected,”tweeted Red State editor Dan McLaughlin.
This isn’t entirely surprising, of course. Even when Romney was running and seemed to actually have a chance to win, there were people arguing that a President Romney would have, at best, a minimal impact on the future direction of the Republican Party because the future would belong to men like Paul Ryan and the stable of Republican Governors who now become contenders for the 2016 nomination. I found that argument slightly implausible only because every President, whether they serve one or two terms, has at least some impact on their party. We’ll never know what kind of President Mitt Romney would have been, of course, and it’s entirely possible that he would have had a significant impact on what the Republican Party would become in the future. At the same time, though, Romney was never running as a transforming candidate in the model of Reagan, Clinton, or Obama. He was running as “the manager,” the guy who would sit down at the desk on Day One, put on the green eyeshades, and get to the job of fixing the country and the economy. Perhaps this is one of the reasons his campaign failed, he wasn’t asking people to elect a President, he was asking them to elect a Chief Operating Officer. Perhaps that’s what we need, but the lack of vision in his campaign, among other things, is very likely one of the things that led to his defeat.
Romney lost, of course, but unlike several recent candidates he’s unlikely to be a major voice in his party going forward:
[O]ther electability candidates have not been subject to the sort of forced amnesia already washing over Romney. John Kerry and John McCain both faced, perhaps, even more bitter recriminations on questions of tactics and strategy from inside their parties —but they returned to important Senate roles, positions of respect in Washington and in their parties, and Kerry may join the next Cabinet.
Other losers can draw, similarly, on deep wells of loyalty at high levels of the party structure. Bob Dole and Walter Mondale got crushed by the last two-term incumbents to serve two terms. They faded fast from the American public imagination, too. But they also retook their seats on the party dais. Mondale, a former Vice President with deep ties to a key constituency, organized labor, became his party’s Senate nominee after Paul Wellstone died in 2002. Dole, a beloved war hero and longtime party soldier, received the Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton in 1997, and was appointed by George W. Bush to chair a commission a decade later.
Romney was a party outsider who bought his way in. The campaigns he came up working for — his father’s — operated in the essentially defunct moderate Republican tradition he abandoned, though a few of its stragglers staffed his headquarters in … Boston. Much of his inner circle consisted of people whose loyalty was to Romney, not to his party or even his platform; that was also true of his most enthusiastic volunteers.
Now Republicans don’t even seem to want to pile on Romney. Karl Rove and the SuperPAC infrastructure have absorbed as much disgust from donors and activists as Romney’s campaign, which found a message in the fall after a dismal summer. Recriminations, such as they are, have focused on the collapse of a glorified digital list called Orca. Republicans just want to forget Romney.
Romney doesn’t have a Senate seat to fall back upon like McCain and Kerry did, he doesn’t have longstanding ties to the party like Dole and Mondale did, and he doesn’t have the family name and reputation that George H.W. Bush did. All he’s really got are his two runs for the White House. After finishing up with the Salt Lake City Olympics, Romney turned to Massachusetts for his political future. It was an odd choice, really. Even though the state had elected a succession of moderate Republicans to the Governor’s Office in the years before he ran, none of them had any real national political career. William Weld was the only one who came close, but even he found that he was mostly persona non grata among conservatives because of his ties to Massachusetts. It makes one wonder how history might have been different had Romney chosen to run for Governor of Utah instead, a race that he likely would have won easily. In any event, it was obvious from the beginning that Romney’s run for Governor was nothing but a stepping stone to the higher political office that was denied to his father, and the fact that he chose not to run for re-election in 2006 pretty much confirmed that. For the past six years, Mitt Romney’s life has been dedicated to winning the White House. Now that that’s over, there’s really nothing political left in his life and no reason why Republicans should consider him to be a player in the party anymore.