That’s not just a rhetorical question: In Mitt Romney’s heart of hearts, maybe all he really wanted was the Republican nomination.
Every time Romney gets an opportunity to reset the narrative of the election, he makes some psychologically revealing mistake. Giving Clint Eastwood his spotlight, rattling a rubber saber over a tweet from the US embassy in Cairo while it was under attack, writing off half of all American voters as moochers—you only have to tilt your head to see each of these “gaffes” as a cry for help. And Republicans themselves are grumbling about Romney’s skimpy schedule of public events, where real voters might take his measure and enthusiasm for a ground campaign could be generated.
“There’s not really a campaign here,” one Republican close to GOP fundraisers complained to Real Clear Politics. “He’s getting ready for the debates, and he’s out fundraising. You’ve got enough money!” Lindsey Graham and Peggy Noonan have also bemoaned his semi-AWOL schedule.
I can think of three good reasons Mitt might be psychologically satisfied with attaining the GOP nomination alone: avenging his father, legitimizing his religion and, well, winning the Republican nomination is generally very good for business.
When Mitt was 20 years old, he watched as his father, Michigan governor George Romney, blew his chance at the nomination in 1968 by saying he had been “brainwashed” into supporting the Vietnam war; that gave the far right all they needed to demolish Richard Nixon’s only progressive rival. For Mitt to win the nomination this year—despite his term as governor of Taxachussetts and his creation of the pilot version of Obamacare—is a remarkable accomplishment. During the primaries, the Tea Party crowd couldn’t stand him of course; they repeatedly elevated “anybody but Romney”—Trump, Gingrich, Perry, Cain, Gingrich again, Santorum—above him in the polls. But wielding his money and his “electability” Mitt eventually beat back just the sort of “muttonheads,” as he called the rabid right in ’68, who had humiliated his dad.
So even if he’s sputtering out now, Mitt nevertheless has the best of both worlds: he has vindicated his father before the people who count, and he wouldn’t have to actually govern. He can avoid the years of “gaffes” and words “not elegantly stated” and “you people” prying into his finances that his presidency would surely entail. And as Michelle Obama said: the office doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.
Anyway, Romney’s nomination has already done something very real for one of the few American institutions he truly seems to care about: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He helped to finally establish Mormonism as a legitimate part of the Republican Party hierarchy, not to mention American political history. Maybe he won’t be invited to speak at the 2016 GOP convention, but he did get Christians to at least nominally accept his once-persecuted faith.
And maybe, after all we’ve seen this past week, we should take Romney at his word when he says he’s not really in this as a politician. In the January 8 debate in New Hampshire, he gave us a big fat hint of his reluctance to actually be president. He claimed he was not a career politician but something more honorable—a smart businessman, a Cincinnatus from the first-class section, who made the wealth these politicians merely spend. When Santorum asked Romney why, if he’d been such a great governor, he didn’t run for re-election, Mitt answered:
I went to Massachusetts to make a difference. I didn’t go there to begin a political career, running time and time again…. Run again? That would be about me. I was trying to help get the state into the best shape as I possibly could, left the world of politics, went back into business.”
“Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?” Newt famously replied. “The fact is, you ran in ‘94 [against Ted Kennedy] and lost…. The fact is, you had a very bad re-election rating, you dropped out of office, you had been out of state for something like 200 days preparing to run for president.”
That’s true: he’s always seemed more interested in running for office than in governing. And maybe now that he’s headed the conservative ticket and spent millions of his own money on Republican causes and auditioned before the billionaires who make up his finance committee, he’ll go on to join their ranks, too.
It’s like that clip Rachel Maddow has been using to tell school kids who Thurston Howell III is, where he says, “Lovey…I’ll appeal. I’ll take it to the Supreme Court! I’ll go even higher—the rules committee of the Newport Country Club!”