But One Mitt to Give for His Country

I don't know how many words I wrote about Mitt Romney over the last five years, but I'm sure it topped 100,000. So I'll almost miss him now that he's gone, and I'd like to offer a couple of (perhaps) final thoughts on him. In defeat, Romney's sins become easier to forgive, and we can acknowledge that he isn't without personal virtues. We'll never know how he would have performed in the difficult moments, when forced to deal with an unexpected crisis or confronted with choices in which every option was a bad one. Perhaps his lack of rigid ideology would have helped him.

It's sometimes said that presidential candidates come in two forms, the "conviction" candidates like Goldwater, McGovern, or Reagan who run for a cause, and the others, who run for themselves. Though it may be impossible for any politician, even the most ideological, to run for president without being an egomaniac, Romney stands apart even among his peers for having run for no cause in particular.

That isn't necessarily as harsh a criticism as it might sound. A person of intelligence, wisdom, good decision-making ability, and strong management skills might perform well as president in many ways, irrespective of the actual agenda he pursued. And someone lacking in those traits who nevertheless had the beliefs you agree with could end up doing terrible harm. But for better or worse, we choose our presidents not only for what kind of people they seem to be but how they make us feel about ourselves. This was a problem Romney never found a way to solve.

Romney's failure to "connect" was about more than the clichéd who-would-you-rather-have-a-beer-with question, though his social awkwardness played a part; you were always aware of how hyper-aware Romney was of the artifice of the interaction between politician and voter. But perhaps more important, it seemed as though Romney's whole life set him apart from others—as the son of a governor, as a Mormon, as a CEO—making it impossible for him to speak for anyone other than himself. For all the efforts of Republicans to cast Barack Obama as The Other, Romney was the one who always seemed alien. As Ben Wallace-Wells notes, "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."

Wallace-Wells's point about Obama is something I've been writing about since the 2008 campaign, though I think it was significantly attenuated this time around simply because of the nature of incumbency. But he's right that Romney spoke in his own voice, because he had little choice. As hard as he tried to convince whomever he was speaking to at a particular moment that he was just like them, both he and his audience always knew it wasn't true. It was important for Republican primary voters that he make the effort, though. In the end that was all they expected of him: that he pretend that their values and hopes and resentments were his too. It would be enough to make him go through the performance, so that when he took office it would be a costume he couldn't afford to remove.

It has been noted that Romney was one of the pioneers of the transition of capitalism from a system based on making things to one based on making deals, from manufacturing to transactions. That was how he approached the primaries, and he and the Republican base made a deal with one another they could each live with given imperfect circumstances. But when he moved to the general election, it just wasn't enough. The broader public wasn't looking for a deal. We want our vote for president to carry meaning not only about the person we're voting for but about our country, our future, and ourselves. What would a vote for Romney say about us? His answer was always, "Whatever you want. Just tell me who you want me to be." And that could never be the right answer.

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