Mitt Romney carefully looks to raise public voice
Has advice for party, sharp words on Obama
WASHINGTON — In the year since his White House dream came crashing down, Mitt Romney’s life has unfolded like pages from a family photo album. There are the many pictures posted online of his grandchildren, the shout-outs for his wife’s best-selling cookbook, a trip to Peru, and the purchase of a fifth house.
He did not form a political action committee, and he did not try to play a major role in the Republican Party. He knew, according to his friends, that the Romney brand of Mr. Fix-it had been undermined by his own words and failed strategy.
But as the calendar nears this week’s anniversary of his 2012 defeat, and a difficult year of reflection comes to a close, Romney is intent on re-emerging — slowly, carefully, in the calculated way of a cautious investor sensing an opportunity — but re-emerging nonetheless.
In a Sunday interview with the Globe, Romney made some of his most pointed political remarks since losing the election, accusing President Obama of “dishonesty” in saying during the campaign that Americans could keep their health care plan under what has become known as Obamacare.
The White House has acknowledged that some people with independent health coverage have received cancellation notices because their plans do not meet certain standards.
At the same time, Romney implicitly criticized his own party, saying that certain caucuses and state conventions — which in some cases have led to the nomination of Tea Party supporters — should be replaced with primaries that attract a wider swath of voters. Romney is hoping to influence the direction of the party by creating what he called a “small” political action committee that would allow him to raise money for candidates in the 2014 midterm elections.
“I also recognize that having lost a presidential race does not give me the platform to be the spokesman for the party or try and tell people what they ought to do,” Romney said in the interview. “After all, I’m the guy that lost.”
No one is suggesting that Romney would consider running again for the White House — two failed presidential bids dashed that dream — but his former aides hope that the public is considering him in a new light.
“I think there is a national case for buyer’s remorse,” said Tom Rath, the New Hampshire political operative who worked closely with Romney in his last campaign.
Over the past year, Romney has at times seemed to be without a defining cause or purpose to guide him beyond spending time with his five sons and their burgeoning families.
It has been a slow walk back into the spotlight. At first, Romney went into analytical mode, meeting with former campaign aides to put together an internal review of why he lost. They put less blame on personal missteps, such as Romney’s comment that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government, and more on missed strategic opportunities, such as failures to win over Hispanic voters and get out the Republican vote.
“What Mitt is trying to do is lend his voice to what are the best tactics to advance our principles,” Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who was Romney’s running mate, said in an interview. “The best role for him, that is natural for him, is to be an elder statesman. He serves as a very good unifier; he unifies our party very well.”
Romney has spent much of the past year focusing on his extended family, which has grown this year by four grandchildren. In June, he drove to a car dealership in New Hampshire and traded in his 2005 red Mustang convertible for a 15-passenger Ford Econoline van. He is planning to take some of his grandchildren this summer on a tour to national parks in the American West, just as his father, George, did.
“When the campaign was over, I went back to the life I’d known before: I’m involved in business again, and I’m deeply involved in charitable efforts that I care about. . . and of course family,” Romney said. “I’ve got 22 grandchildren that I get to enjoy a lot more this year than I did last year.”
He works in a personal office at Solamere Capital, a private capital firm founded by Romney’s oldest son, Tagg, on Boston’s fashionable Newbury Street. Romney is listed on the firm’s website as “executive partner group chairman,” a role in which he offers strategic advice and business connections. He has also provided financing for real estate ventures by several of his sons, who have been investing in apartment buildings, according to a source close to the family. A few weeks after the election, Romney rejoined the Marriott International board of directors.
Leisure time has dominated much of Romney’s schedule. He has gone trout fishing in Alaska, where, after six hours one day last summer, he caught nothing. “I’ve never heard of someone going to Alaska and not catching anything,” Romney said with a laugh. “Neither the guides nor any fishermen even got a nibble.”
Family members often post photos of him on Twitter and Instagram, showing the former presidential candidate with his hair disheveled, making homemade ice cream, reading bedtime stories, or playing Connect Four with his grandchildren.
He has gone hiking in the California desert, and he has sat in a reclining lawn chair in Palm Springs, a newborn sleeping on his stomach. He has vacationed on Lake Huron in Ontario, and at the family home on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.
Last month, he went to remote areas of Peru to help a group called Charity Vision, which administers exams and screens for potential eye problems. One photo shows him, in a blue hospital gown and surgical mask, observing an operation. Another shows him helping a young girl with an eye exam.
Romney said he and his wife, Ann, have also been involved in supporting the Center for Neurologic Disease at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Instead of moving into one home — the White House — the Romneys have used their wealth to give them the option of living in five houses, each near their sons.
After local appeals, the California Coastal Commission last month gave the Romneys approval to move forward on plans to tear down his 3,000-square-foot beachfront property in La Jolla and replace it with a home that is more than three times larger. The home will include the infamous four-car garage with an elevator that became fodder for criticism during the 2012 campaign.
The Romneys have recently purchased property in Holladay, Utah, where they plan to tear down the existing house and build a 5,900-square-foot one. The family has also purchased a home in Park City, Utah, that had been listed for $8.9 million. The Romneys also have a condo in Belmont, Mass., and a vacation home in Wolfeboro, N.H.
Romney’s political engagement has been sporadic. He releases statements or grants interviews when it suits him. In June, he put together a conference in Park City that included bipartisan speakers, modeled after a campaign event a year earlier.
The relative quiet was broken last week by Obama’s visit to Boston, during which the president said that Romney’s health care law in Massachusetts also got off to a slow start. That event prompted the former governor and his former running mate to speak out forcefully. “Pretty much the opposite of what we planned on doing occurred: bitter partisanship, problems getting worse, Obamacare taking effect,” said Ryan, adding that he e-mails and talks regularly with Romney. “The irony is Mitt and I were going to fix these problems. That was going to be our agenda. The buyer’s remorse, I guess people see that. But no one should be surprised.”
It is difficult to gauge public opinion on Romney — and whether there’s any “buyer’s remorse” — because there have been no polls detailing opinions on the losing 2012 presidential candidate.
Romney, who was pilloried during the GOP primaries by many Tea Party supporters, said the presidential nominating contest should be altered to diminish the influence of caucuses and encourage states to select candidates through broader primary elections.
“I’m concerned that there’s an effort on the part of some to move toward caucuses or conventions to select nominees, and I think that’s a mistake,” Romney said.
“I think we should reward those states that award delegates to the convention based upon primaries. Primaries are the place where you see whose message is connecting with the largest number of people,” he said.
Romney’s plan would probably limit the strength of the Tea Party, whose activists have proved effective in caucuses, where they can rally their most ardent supporters. Romney said he was less concerned about diminishing the influence of Iowa, which holds strong to its tradition of having a caucus, than with other states moving in that direction.
“I’m concerned that that kind of approach could end up with a minority deciding who the nominee ought to be. And that I think would be a mistake,” he said. “I think we should have the majority of the party’s voters decide who they want as their nominee.”
Romney said he is most focused with altering the presidential nominating contest, but he would also make his views known in some states that use caucuses and conventions to select Senate nominees. In Utah, for example, longtime Senator Bob Bennett was defeated during a convention by Tea Party-backed Mike Lee.
Romney did not criticize the Tea Party specifically, although he did say the government shutdown strategy was “counterproductive.”
“Tea Party members will continue to have an influence in the thinking of the American people, and certainly in my party,” he said. “That, I think, is separate from the effort by a few people to move toward a shutdown as a tactic to stop Obamacare. Obviously that didn’t work.”
While Romney is slowly easing back into a public role, many of his days are filled with quieter moments. A few weeks ago, Romney walked off a United flight by himself. He had promised his campaign assistant, Garrett Jackson, that he would attend a University of Mississippi football game with him.
“He said, ‘Win or lose, I’m going to come to an Ole Miss game with you. I don’t care if I’m president of the United States or not, I’m going to come,’” Jackson said. “Sure enough, he made good on his promise.”
Romney wore an Ole Miss shirt that Jackson had given to him, and they sat in the stands, eating hot dogs and soaking it all in.
The next morning, as Jackson drove Romney to the airport, his mind turned to their early campaign days together, before the entourage had grown, before the chartered plane, and before the devastating defeat.
“It was full circle,” Jackson said. “It was back to the two of us, alone in the car again.”