The Tragedy of Mitt Romney

The most frustrating Republican candidate for me to watch this year is Mitt Romney. Rick Santorum is who he is: a small-minded theocrat. Ron Paul is the same old coot with funny ideas that he’s been for years. Newt Gingrich (like Herman Cain and Sarah Palin before him) is a huckster who wants to sell books and get on TV. If those jokers want to run for president and Republicans want to vote for them, that’s their problem.

But here’s the thing about Mitt Romney: At one time, there was a good argument for electing him president. Then he lost faith in himself or in the American people or both. So rather than take his legitimate case to the voters and try to convince them to do the right thing, he decided to pander to the crazies.

I think that mistake is tragic, in the original Sophocles/Shakespeare sense of the word.

President Romney? Seriously? Most Sift readers are liberals, so I imagine you are asking “A good argument for making Romney president? What?”

Here’s the argument: The #1 problem in America today — worse than income inequality or unemployment or racism or the deficit or climate change — is our inability to marshall our forces and even attempt to solve those problems.

That’s why “Yes We Can” was such an appealing slogan four years ago. At some visceral level, voters didn’t even care what the new president was going to do. We just wanted to believe that he would do something. We wanted to believe that we didn’t have to sit here and watch the oceans rise, soldiers die in pointless wars, college become an unaffordable luxury, debts of all kinds skyrocket, and jobs run away to China.

We were sick of arguing about which party got us lost in this wilderness. Just lead us in some direction that has a chance of getting us home. We’ll follow. That’s all we want.

That’s still what we want, because we haven’t gotten it yet. That’s why President Obama is vulnerable. He accomplished a few noteworthy things during the half-year when he had 60 senators (from the delayed swearing-in of Al Franken in July, 2009 to the out-of-cycle election of Scott Brown in January, 2010), but anybody who was starting to regain faith in the American government lost it again during the debt-limit fiasco last summer.

You can argue (as I often have) that the problem is the intransigence of the Republicans in Congress. But you can’t argue that government is working.

If I were a Romney speechwriter. Mitt could have laid it out to the voters like this:

When I became governor of Massachusetts, I took on the toughest problem the state had: health care. I didn’t hide behind the excuse that the other party controlled the legislature. I started with the best ideas of the conservative Heritage Foundation, I listened to smart people of all political persuasions, and I appealed to both parties’ desire to make life better for the people of our state.

And we did. Today, Massachusetts leads the nation in access to health care. That system is not perfect, but it is working and it is popular. Today, neither party can win a statewide election by opposing it.

Our plan’s success gave the current administration the courage and the model to attack the healthcare problem nationwide. That system also is not perfect and I have many ideas for improving it. But again, it got passed and is being implemented. The framework is there to fix and upgrade.

In areas where the Obama administration did not have a Romney example to build on, they have spun their wheels. The economy continues to sputter. Debts continue to rise. The environment continues to degrade. We are no closer to solving our immigration problem. Our educational system falls further and further behind our competitors in other countries. Every day, it gets more and more difficult for young Americans to start at the bottom and rise to the top.

These are not Democratic issues or Republican issues. They are not problems for the government to solve by decree, or for the market to solve without government, or for individuals to solve without any help at all. These are American challenges, challenges that we must meet together, using every tool at our command.

Government, business, private charities and foundations, parents, teachers, farmers, scientists, factory workers, inventors, consumers, religious leaders, students, entrepreneurs — we all have a role to play. We all have to step up and take action if America is going to continue to lead the world.

What kind of president does America need at this crucial point in its history? Not an inspiring orator, not a mere cheerleader or a symbol or a figurehead. America needs a problem-solver, someone who can engage people of all philosophies, all religions, and all walks of life in the project of making our country great for generations to come.

America needs a president who takes pride in tackling the hard problems and finding real solutions — as I did in government in Massachusetts, in business at Bain Capital, and in the non-profit sector when I organized the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

I’m pretty liberal, so I’m not saying I definitely would have voted for that Mitt Romney. (The Bain Capital part would have been particularly hard for me to swallow.) But I would have had to think hard about it. A lot of people, even a lot of Democrats, would have had to think hard about it. Romney might have become another Eisenhower, blandly pulling together coalitions to do big things like build the interstate highway system.

But Mitt Romney turned his back on that guy. He turned his back on himself and his record. Instead of running as a leader who will listen to anybody, he has become a panderer who will say anything.

What else could he do? I understand why he did it: The Tea Party wave of 2010 should have thrown a scare into any reality-based politician, especially one hoping to win Republican primaries. But there’s more than one way to handle that situation.

  • You can fight it. Say in no uncertain terms that facts are facts, science is science, and economics is economics. You can finesse the social issues. (Traditionally in this country they have been state issues; defend each state’s right to handle marriage and guns and abortion as it sees fit.) But on health care, the economy, and the environment, stand up tall and try to hold your head above the rising tide. Call out bizarre lies like Birtherism and Obama’s Muslimhood. Stand up to the Rush Limbaughs when they become inexcusable. Even if you don’t win, you’ll become the-guy-we-should-have-listened-to. In 2016, you’ll be 69 — still young enough.
  • You can wait it out. That’s what Nixon did during the Goldwater disaster of 1964 and Jeb Bush is doing now. Express your Republican loyalty in vague terms, but don’t let the Party’s descent into the pit get you dirty. Again: 69 is not that old these days. Hillary Clinton is the same age you are — think she’s giving up?
  • You can do something else with your life. Lots of people don’t get to be president. Enjoy your quarter-billion and your beautiful family. Be Commerce Secretary in some future administration, find another Olympics to save, or chair a bipartisan commission to chart Medicare’s future. Herbert Hoover continued a respectable career of public service to age 80. You could too.

Instead, Mitt sold out to the insanity. You can tell he doesn’t believe what he’s saying, and so can the crazies. That’s how a nobody like Santorum can get so many votes, even though he and Romney are running on almost identical platforms.

The result. Not only will Mitt Romney lose this year, either at a brokered convention in the summer or to Obama in the fall, but he has trashed his brand. No one — not even most of the people voting for him — believes or trusts Romney any more. In fact, his general-election strategy depends on voters doubting his honesty: Come fall, he’ll need to convince independents that he didn’t mean any of the stuff he’s saying now.

Mitt Romney is a man of considerable ability. He could have served this country well — possibly as president or possibly some other way. Now he never will, because he wanted to be president more than he wanted to serve his country, and he tried to take a short cut to the White House rather than walk the long and winding road this era laid out for him.

Great promise undone by a single character flaw — that’s the stuff tragedy is made of.

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