Mitt Romney has figured out the key to winning presidential elections. Like so many great insights, it came just a bit late.
Turns out the secret is generosity. Shower enough gifts on the swing voters and — surprise! — they will vote for you. Even against a man who had far better ideas for the future of the country.
“The Obama campaign was following the old playbook of giving a lot of stuff to groups that they hoped they could get to vote for them, and be motivated to go out to the polls, specifically the African-American community, the Hispanic community, and young people,” was the way Romney explained his defeat to donors on a conference call a few days ago. Digging in deeper, he said Obama was “very generous” in his turn as political Santa Claus.
Certainly the comment is offensive, echoing as it does his comment that 47 percent of the voters would never support him because they are essentially moochers. But it also says much about Romney’s state of mind in defeat.
Of course, there could hardly be a more bitter feeling in politics than losing a presidential election. It has been said that no one gets over it, ever, the feeling of having come so close to a prize like no other. Michael Dukakis and John Kerry could both tell him what the morning after feels like.
But what is striking about Romney’s bitterness is that the possibility of defeat seems barely to have occurred to him.
Then again, why would it? This is the man who racked up untold riches in the corporate world. He saved the Winter Olympics. In 2002, he scared a sitting governor out of running for election in what felt like a matter of minutes. His defeat to Ted Kennedy in the 1994 Senate race felt, even then, like a mere bump in the road. After all, he was only 47. He was certain to be heard from again, and boy, has he been.
This, of course, is different. His political aspirations are over, having lost his bid for the only remaining office he cares about. For reasons that are only partly his fault, his party is in a shambles. They can’t figure out whether to double down on insulting gays, women, and immigrants or to try to meet them halfway, but they seem agreed that whatever they do, they want to do it without Romney.
The real problem with Romney’s comment is that it is entirely sincere. He seems to really believe that ours is a country of givers and takers, and that the takers won. Romney isn’t mean-spirited, but he has never fully grasped the extent of his privilege. He really believes, foolishly, that his defeat came about because he wasn’t willing to kowtow — never mind that he has spent at least six years relentlesssly pandering to the Republican right, willing to adjust any position to close the sale.
For some politicians, losing is liberating. Freed from ambition, they can be their authentic selves. Once they get over the bitterness, they become spokesmen for causes they believe in, or elder statesmen of their parties. The disgraced Richard Nixon became a prolific author. Jimmy Carter started building poor people houses. Barry Goldwater tried to live down his image as an extremist nut.
You can pursue that path or you can blame the people for rejecting what you offered them. Romney lost for a lot of reasons, but one of the major ones was that many people didn’t see a place for themselves in his vision. It wasn’t about Obama handing out goodies to immigrants; it was about Romney’s unwillingness to embrace them. That is what he, and his party, have to confront.
We know that he is adept at change. Once, Romney was a moderate Massachusetts Republican. Later he was a “severe conservative.” Now, apparently, he is a bitter elitist.
Perhaps he has one more transformation in him, to defeated but gracious statesman.