As you may know, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wants to be president, and he and his aides have spent the last several days phoning high-dollar donors to explain how his third presidential bid would be different than the last two, failed ones.
But I had to laugh at one factor cited as being in Romney’s favor by an anonymous operative, that “Mitt,” a Netflix documentary about those two campaigns, had “humanized” Romney and could pave the way to broader appeal.
“The movie really pulled the curtain back,” one Romney alum told Politico. “It’s a good story to tell. We didn’t do that last time, and it allowed Obama to paint a caricature. We’d show him as a person more. In the first campaign, we were so afraid to even mention the ‘M’ word” – meaning “Mormon – “Now it doesn’t even matter.”
Not remembering anything in the documentary that had prompted such positive thoughts, I re-watched it last night, searching for the pro-Romney undercurrent in a behind-the-scenes look at two losing presidential campaigns.
Was it the spectacular on-stage Benghazi meltdown in which he allowed Obama and debate moderator Candy Crowley to team up to make him look foolish?
As he recalled stammering helplessly while Obama exploited his obvious ignorance about how the president had described the Sept. 11 attack, Romney told family members it was “like the SAT when there’s three questions in a row you don’t know the answer to, and you think, ‘Oh no, I’m gonna flunk it. My life is over.’ It was like that.”
In retrospect, it probably would have been helpful to know what Obama said in a Rose Garden press conference the day after the attack, which would have allowed Romney to show how Obama was, in fact, being misleading.
Perhaps the moment in “Mitt” that warmed well-paid operatives’ hearts was in the Cleveland Wendy’s, when small-talk with a voter turned decidedly awkward as Romney veered from the voters’ discussion of yardwork he had been completing into a bizarre reminiscence of “burning leaves” as a child.
“You’re blowing leaves today? Oh, it’s a good day when the sun’s shining. I love – the leaves when it’s – sun shine onto it. Now, when I was a boy we used to burn the leaves. They don’t do that anymore, of course.”
“No, no,” the man said.
“So, we used to put them in front of the street, you know, and burn them, and then smoke – I love the smell,” Romney said.
Perhaps the revealing moment was Romney, in 2008, candidly discussing his complete inability to overcome an image that he’s flipped positions on too many issues, ultimately concluding that he may not be able to ever conquer it, “in which case, I think I’m a flawed candidate.”
Or maybe it was election night 2012, when wrongly convinced he had won the election thanks in part to his own campaign’s incorrect polling, he had arrogantly declined to draft a concession speech. As his chief image maven Stuart Stevens pleaded with him to be gracious, rather than make a strong ideological point, Romney resists because “I’m not going to run for anything, that’s for sure….My time on the stage is over, guys.”
In the documentary, we do see, although certainly not for the first time, that Romney is a nice man, with a great family. His sons revere him the way any father would hope his would, but their kind words are not particularly compelling for any even-handed assessment of his abilities as a candidate.
The best that can be said for the Romney portrayed in “Mitt” is that, had he conveyed his behind-the-scenes personality to voters better, Romney might have mitigated the damage from Obama’s attacks. Maybe some of his self-effacing humor, or seeing Romney wear duct-taped gloves while skiing and pick up hotel-room trash like a normal person might could have offset the ruthless out-of-touch businessman image portrayed by his opponent.
But the subtext of “Mitt” is Romney’s tragic inability to actually be that person in public.
For a man seeking his third shot at the presidency admist the strongest GOP bench in decades, it’s not a flattering portrait.