Byron York, having just watched the new documentary “Mitt,” looks back over his notes and wonders.
Then came the debate. Romney gave a dominating, near-perfect performance, while Obama struggled. The president didn’t even hit Romney on “47 percent.” It was a smashing victory, a big, big win for Romney.
Such a clear-cut triumph would seem a huge confidence-builder, but afterward, Romney seemed mostly concerned that Obama would come back and beat him badly the next time. “Sitting presidents have a very hard time in these debates,” Romney told the family. “They feel like, who is this whippersnapper coming up here who knows nothing? And so they don’t prepare, and they just think they can waltz through it. Then they get crushed in the first debate, and then they come back.”
George Romney, a self-made man, would have gotten the best of Obama, Mitt seemed to think, but a guy like him who’d started life on third base might not have what it takes to make it to home plate. Then, on election night, when the writing’s on the wall, we get this:
“To get up and soothe [in my concession speech] is not my inclination,” an obviously anguished Romney continued. “I cannot believe that [Obama] is an aberration in the country. I believe we’re following the same path of every other great nation, which is we’re following greater government, tax rich people, promise more stuff to everybody, borrow until you go over a cliff. And I think we have a very high risk of reaching the tipping point sometime in the next five years. And the idea of saying ‘it’s just fine, don’t worry about it’ — no, it’s really not.”
Given what has come before it in the film — Romney’s defeatism in the debates — the scene leaves the impression that perhaps in his heart of hearts Romney never really believed he could win. That also seems the message of one of the last scenes of “Mitt,” the day after the election, when Romney addressed staff at his Boston campaign headquarters. The old lack of confidence came out again as Romney suggested he never felt comfortable in the race. He passed on something someone at headquarters had told him: “In some ways, we kind of had to steal the Republican nomination. Our party is Southern, evangelical and populist. And you’re Northern, and you’re Mormon, and you’re rich. And these do not match well with our party.”
Would a better attitude have mattered? There’s a whiff here of the idea that more optimism and a little well-timed righteous anger towards O onstage might have changed the race down the stretch. I doubt it. I remember seeing a graph from a statistical model somewhere after the election, probably on Nate Silver’s blog, showing that Romney never once reached 50 percent odds to win after becoming nominee. Not once. That’s a remarkable quasi-fact about a president whose first term was defined by a grinding jobless economic “recovery” and a huge new health-care boondoggle that’s never been popular with the public: In spite of all of it, if the model I saw was right, Obama was always the favorite, start to finish. Romney thought he had a chance (otherwise, why obsess about the debates?) but he was a longshot — and evidently he knew it. In fact, his finest hour, the first debate, was memorable not because he projected some sort of Reagan-esque sunniness or because he got in Obama’s face over his failures but because he was composed and engaged while O was lethargic and missed easy opportunities. It was, per the model, Obama’s race to lose. And after the first debate, he made sure not to lose it.
I think Romney lost for three reasons. One: He’s right that Obama isn’t an aberration. There’s a huge constituency for the European/blue-state model in the U.S., whether it’s fiscally sustainable or not, and demographic change is more likely to expand it than shrink it. I don’t think it’ll be many years before we see another Republican president but I do think it’ll be many years before we see another Republican landslide. Two: He got out-organized. The irony of the passages from the movie flagged by York is that Mitt was, understandably, worried about his obvious weaknesses (his ability to communicate with voters, his unjust image as a rich guy who’d inherited all his successes) but not worried about his supposed strengths, i.e. his managerial acumen and organizational efforts. He should have been. Obama’s data-crunchers and behavioral analysts evidently ran rings around Team “Project ORCA.” Oh well. Three: Romney suffered from the same problem McCain did, albeit to a lesser extent — there was no real point to his campaign. Bush had “compassionate conservatism” and then the war on terror. Obama had Hopenchange and then protecting the liberal gains he’d made in his first term like ObamaCare. Romney’s message was … “you did build that,” I guess? Makers versus takers? That’s a hard message to sell to middle-class wage earners after a giant recession. The boldface part above, about averting a coming crisis, looked like it was going to be a major theme when he chose Paul Ryan, but then Ryan all but disappeared on the trail — for good reason, as Team Mitt apparently concluded that fighting the battle over entitlements wasn’t likely to be a net winner for them. Maybe all of that would have been blunted by a change in attitude from the candidate himself. But overcome?