Historical Footnote?

Mitt Romney’s Fast Fade After Losing the 2012 Presidential Race

Lauren Ashburn on why the former candidate is ready to shun the spotlight—and why he shouldn’t.

Mary Altaffer / AP Photo

Willard Mitt Romney stood on the verge of ultimate power as leader of the free world. Now, just moments later, he is about to vanish from the political stage. Perhaps forever.

So what’s a guy to do when booted from the national spotlight without a job? Well, if you’re Romney, you don’t have to do a whole hell of a lot. His millions spare him from worrying about putting food on the table.

In six months, will he be relegated to a mere historical footnote?

Historian Douglas Brinkley, author of the bestselling book Cronkite, argues that life in politics is over for the man who could have been president. “There is no such thing as a Romney Republican,” Brinkley says. The former Massachusetts governor’s move to the center and his flip-flopping on such issues as abortion, health care, and tax cuts during the campaign left many wondering just exactly what he stands for. “He’s not going to be beloved by the conservative movement. Not when you lose when unemployment is 7.9 percent.”

The obvious place for Romney to hang his hat, says Brinkley, is back in the world of business, where the Republican made a fortune as an aggressive dealmaker at Bain Capital. “The only thing he seems proficient at is making himself money,” he says.

The former governor never seemed like a natural politician and may welcome the chance to retreat to the shadows. In his brief concession speech, he did not offer the usual bromides about fighting for his principles or staying involved in the political debate. He has spent the last six years running for president, only to have his hopes crushed just when he and his team were convinced he might win.

“What gets you there is the kind of slobbering attention that is hard to turn off,” says Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “For two-plus years, to be in the center of an international feast of attention … I think there would be real withdrawal.”

Chris Lehane, a longtime Democratic strategist and top spokesman for Al Gore’s presidential campaign, calls this the “cricket dynamic.” “Everyone in the world is kissing the ring and essentially bowing down,” he says. When the billion-dollar business of running for president disappears virtually overnight, “suddenly the only ones around are the crickets.”

The loss of the Secret Service detail, the plane, the entourage, all add up to a big letdown. The candidate, says Lehane, is left thinking: “Where are the people who were my best friends just hours ago?” Romney no longer exerts an appeal on people who were seeking influence in his administration or perhaps land a plum ambassador’s job.

“It’s like a sports gig,” says Thompson. “After it’s over, we forget about the team that lost.”

Not to mention that the press corps was voracious until Tuesday about details of his family, his Mormonism, and his potential Cabinet appointees. But interest fades quickly in someone who most likely won’t be a future political player.

What’s more, Romney’s refusal to grant many interviews during the final weeks of his campaign strained relations with the fourth estate. “The media developed a low-simmering disdain for him,” says Brinkley.

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Given the size of his bank account, Romney could start a foundation or launch a crusade if he wants to reclaim part of the spotlight. But doing so would require a thirst for issue advocacy that he has never displayed.

When Gore won the popular vote and lost the presidency, he delved into his passions for climate change and technology, ultimately winning a Nobel Prize. Former presidential candidates John Kerry and John McCain still their had jobs as senators to serve as platforms.

Many politicians who had taken a shellacking would retreat to their home base and start rebuilding a career. But Romney lost Massachusetts in a landslide, garnering only 38 percent of the vote. Of course, if he wants to return to his religious roots, there’s always Utah.

But by simply withdrawing from the public square, as George W. Bush has done, Romney would be squandering a prime opportunity. He could use his household-name status, personal wealth, and political experience to make a mark in any realm he chooses.

A man who sold himself to voters as an American success story owes the public more than a wave goodbye.