The Romney Revival Tour is under way.
After a winter’s shame-cation at their beachfront La Jolla, California, estate—replete with reports of crying jags and aimless days—Mitt and Ann are reaching back out to the American public with a Chris Wallace interview on Fox News Sunday, followed by a pilgrimage to the conservative enclave CPAC midmonth.
The question is whether anybody cares.
The transition for would-be first families after the election can be brutal. Expectations and adoration evaporate overnight.
This is especially true for the Romneys, who by all accounts genuinely believed they were going to win the White House until the final results came in. In a sign of just how insular the hyperpartisan echo chamber has become, they trusted their own pollster more than all the other, independent polls—setting themselves up for a rude awakening.
In What It Takes, the late, great Richard Ben Cramer captured the surreal postelection life of Michael and Kitty Dukakis in 1988: “… It was what they didn’t see. The barricades were gone. And the agents. And the cop cars, the van, the people … The phone wasn’t ringing, there was no schedule, no cars waiting, no Secret Service … no Chief of Staff, no Press Secretary, no Advance, no airport, no planes, no pilots … no itinerary … [Kitty Dukakis] wasn’t going anywhere today, this week, or next, or next. She’d get up and there was nowhere she had to go.”
Still the governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis could rebound from the loss by returning to work at the State House the next day. But the radius of damage couldn’t be contained by brave faces or workday responsibilities. In Cramer’s account, “Kitty Dukakis saw him off, then went to the liquor cabinet in the dining room, measured out four ounces of booze, drank it down, and went back to bed, to pass out.”
The Romneys will presumably not have that particular problem, as proud teetotalers, consistent with their Mormon faith. The Romneys’ problem is rebounding from the deep presumption that victory was destined to be theirs.
That was always the word Mitt used on the campaign trail, “I presume I’m going to be president.” To that extent at least, theirs was a faith-based campaign. Fond of reciting the Friday Night Lights mantra, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” in the closing weeks of the campaign, they found reality less accommodating.
In advance excerpts from the Fox News Sunday interview, Ann’s comments are revealing: “In our church, we're used to serving and you know, you can be in a very high position, but you recognize you're serving. And now all of a sudden, you're released and you're nobody ... And we're used to that. It's like we came and stepped forward to serve. And ... the other part of it was an amazing thing, and it was really quite a lot of energy and a lot of passion and ... a lot of people around us and all of a sudden, it was nothing.”
In a close reading of those comments, two words jump out—“nobody” and “nothing.” Without putting Ann Romney on the couch, there is an existential quality to that word choice that’s hard to miss. Either defeat has been a spiritually positive exercise in self-transcendence, or there have been some tough days and nights by the ocean in La Jolla.
Beyond the expected barbs at the “liberal media” and sad ruminations on President Obama’s lost opportunity to prevent the sequester (ignoring, of course, the Republicans’ role in blocking a balanced deficit and debt-reduction plan), the real Romney red meat will offered up at CPAC in a 1 o’clock slot on Friday, March 15.
Romney’s relationship with the conservative movement has always been fraught. In 2008 he campaigned as a conservative alternative to John McCain, becoming the favorite of the right-wing talk-radio crowd before dropping out of the race at CPAC. Four years later, the Republican primaries were consumed by a search for a credible conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. Post- “Obamneycare,” there was such desperation among the base that Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum all got a serious look before the party reverted to form and nominated the conventional-wisdom frontrunner, without much enthusiasm. It can’t be lost on Romney that his late campaign surge came only when he pivoted expertly back to the center in his strong first debate. But in a crowd where Sarah Palin is still more beloved than Mitt Romney, this won’t be the place to reframe his once-proud northeast Republicanism for a new generation.
Behind the Romney Revival Tour is a question of purpose going forward—what’s in the windshield rather than the rearview mirror. In recent political history, there are only two examples of nominees or wives who went on to receive political redemption. The first was Elizabeth Dole, who rebounded from her husband’s 1996 defeat to win election to the U.S. Senate from her home state of North Carolina. The second is our current secretary of State, John Kerry, who reached almost as great a height as the White House by working hard back in the Senate on the issue he always cared most about: foreign affairs.
Additional electoral effort seems to be uninteresting to the Romneys, despite Ann’s felicity on the stump—son Tagg Romney likewise just declined a chance to run for the open Senate seat back home in Massachusetts this June. Appointed office is not impossible to imagine—Mitt Romney would make a great Treasury secretary in some future Republican administration—but it could feel like a slight compared to his overriding ambition to live next door on Pennsylvania Avenue. Mitt Romney remains very wealthy (though apparently not as wealthy as Al Gore post-Current), and that fact alone means that he’ll retain a role as an party influencer, but the only dynasty that Republicans seem to have an appetite for is named Bush.
Expect plenty of semipolite anti-Obama-isms alongside resentful reimaginings of what he’d be doing differently as president in the Romney revival tour. It’s a necessary catharsis, part of the process of bridging their past with their future. There will be few die-hard Mitt Romney fans when the history books are written, though his candidacy is likely to seem more moderate in the rearview mirror, especially when seen alongside the other speakers at CPAC.
The “roller coaster” of the campaign, as Mitt Romney calls it, is definitively over. There isn’t a comparable Act 2. But there is one redeeming quality that even cynics and hardened opponents can’t take away from the Romneys—“fortunately, we like each other,” as Ann Romney says in the interview, as her husband looks adoringly on. That’s more than some political couples can say when the crowds depart and the cheering stops.