Mitt Romney is having a pretty good January. The documentary about his presidential campaigns, Mitt, is getting mixed reviews from film critics, but it’s helping the man win an image rehabilitation.
Romney comes off as funnier and more relaxed in the documentary than what we saw in debates and campaign commercials, which shouldn’t be a surprise. At a 2006 family meeting on whether he should run for president, son Tagg ponders the possibility of his defeat: “The country may think you’re a laughingstock, but we’ll know the truth.” But by giving Greg Whitely limited access to the Romneys’ personal lives to make Mitt, the family did find a way to mitigate the laughingstock factor, and it seems to be working.
On Friday, Romney appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to promote the documentary (not something that all documentary subjects are so eager to do) and take part in the “slow jam the news” feature. The R&B spoof, ostensibly a preview of Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, gave Romney the opportunity to list some problems facing the president and tsk-tsk over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. It also meant he had to keep a smile for the camera as Fallon, in a bedroom voice, spoke-sung, “You gotta listen to the Mittman. He had a program that worked for the people of Massachusetts, and let’s just say it didn’t suffer from any performance problems in the hardware department.” Fallon and his band also gave an explanation for Obama’s re-election win over Romney: “Once you go black, you never go back.”
Romney’s excellent weekend continued on Saturday when Scrubs star Zach Braff tweeted photos of the two sitting together on a plane and wrote, “LIFE LESSON: our politics are quite different, but @MittRomney and I are having the best conversation ever. Very cool dude.”
The success of the Mitt rollout prompted “demographics and data junkie” Conor Sen to tweet, “If I’m a 2016 candidate up against Hillary I’m starting my campaign documentary now to release in Oct ’16 as a last minute gambit.”
All this is a great wintertime diversion, but political scientists must be going crazy over the idea that the 2012 election might have had a different outcome if voters had known the “real Mitt.” The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch correctly writes, “in the heat of a campaign, the documentary would have been greeted differently, as a purely political object,” but I hope he’s being facetious in saying, “There may be no starker referendum on an individual’s character and professional fitness in America than a Presidential election.” Is that why Richard Nixon won twice?
I met Mitt Romney once, when he was running for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. He sat for an interview with the staff of CommonWealth magazine, as did all the major candidates for governor. Romney was gracious, charming, and gave substantive answers to our policy questions. He was well-informed and less evasive than many candidates, and even people suspicious of Republicans felt he had the potential to be a good governor. He was the Mitt of Mitt.
But context matters. Romney could run for governor of Massachusetts as a fixer, or a turnaround artist, because the parameters of public debate were a lot more confined than in a presidential election. “Social issues” were a minor factor because everyone knew that it was politically impossible to roll back gay rights or let the NRA write gun laws in Massachusetts. Romney could run as an efficiency expert and budget cutter because the Democratic state legislature wouldn’t allow any governor to shred the safety net. He could run as an education reformer (supporting charter schools and backing standardized testing as a requirement for high-school diplomas) without raising fears that he would gut funding for public schools. The principles of what would become the Tea Party just didn’t apply in Massachusetts.
Romney’s most famous adaption to the Massachusetts political climate was his signing of a health care law that simultaneously required all residents to buy insurance and provided subsidies for those unable to afford it. “Romneycare” was a less ambitious project than what would become Obamacare because Massachusetts already had one of the lowest shares of uninsured citizens in the country. (As a presidential candidate, Romney argued against the idea that what was good for Massachusetts would be good for America. But recognizing that other states had become desensitized to much higher shares of the population going uninsured was not much of a moral argument against the Affordable Care Act.)
A better example of Romney working within the Massachusetts political climate was that he supported “smart growth” policies (he preferred the term “sustainable growth”), and he followed through during his first year as governor by appointing a longtime environmental activist to a new cabinet position overseeing all development in the state. In most states, this would have been unthinkable for a Republican, but smart growth can be seen as pro-development in Massachusetts. Since there are so many sticks used against developers in the Bay State — tough environmental laws, strong municipal governments, and rampant NIMBYism — the carrot of making it easier to build near public transportation can be seen as almost libertarian. But in America as a whole, where land is relatively cheap and developers have more latitude to build where they want, smart growth is seen as a left-wing idea (and even a United Nations plot) and a non-starter in the Republican Party. Romney was never going to be able to showcase his good business sense and pragmatism on this issue while running as the GOP nominee.
My point is not that Romney is a phony or a flip-flopper (or “flipping Mormon,” as he ruefully calls himself in the documentary). No one can go from state to national politics without adapting to the very different dynamics of the latter. Even if he sometimes seems robotic, Romney can be good at figuring out the boundaries of possible and acceptable behavior in a situation, as when he gamely tolerates risqué humor on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. But pretty much everyone saw that when he was a presidential candidate, which is why Tea Party activists who prefer brinkmanship and confrontation didn’t like him.
Other than a few moments of doubt and self-deprecation, we did see the reasonable Mitt of the film Mitt, and of his Massachusetts run, during the 2012 campaign. It’s just that personality or “good character” does not win an election when there’s no consensus on public policy. As the standard-bearer of a Republican Party that controlled the House of Representatives and had turned sharply to the right in recent years, Romney had too much running room for a small majority of voters to feel comfortable with. Without limits on what’s politically possible (whether in Massachusetts or Texas), voters get more nervous about what a CEO-type, “turnaround” chief executive would do. A behind-the-scenes documentary released during the campaign wouldn’t have reassured them.