With a war on, one might expect the news media to give this kind of attention to whip counts, but apparently that’s something wonky that needs to be reserved for more politically specialized discussions of current events. After all, what proportion of voters actually know what a whip count is?
Of much greater fascination, perhaps because it is something journalists can pretend is simple and human and episodic like reality television, is pressing Mitt Romney to run for president. Leibovich tries his spin for the New York Times Magazine, opening with a picturesque description of the Romneys at home—nine paragraphs about tchtchke, geese pooping on the lawn, and the troubles of being rich and having more stuff than anyone actually needs.
Then comes four paragraphs on the troubles of being rich and losing a presidential election, and while it’s true that everyone has their troubles, and privilege doesn’t mean a person is without worry, and, sure, there must be a “human story” in Mitt Romney, somewhere, they are really bad paragraphs setting up the inevitable:
Romney, for his part, is noticeably playing along. He recently told a radio host that he was not planning on running for president but allowed that “circumstances can change.” A recent column by the conservative pundit Byron York noted that Romney had kept in close contact with many of his advisers and aides. As we spoke, Romney compared the barrage of 2016-related questions to a scene in the film “Dumb and Dumber.” After Jim Carrey’s character is flatly rejected by Lauren Holly, she tells him that there’s a one-in-a-million chance she would change her mind. “So,” Romney told me, embodying the character, “Jim Carrey says, ‘You’re telling me there’s a chance.’ “
This was the obvious opening for me to ask if there was a chance. Romney’s response was decidedly meta—”I have nothing to add to the story”—but he then fell into the practiced political parlance of nondenial. “We’ve got a lot of people looking at the race,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”
As deftly as Romney plays the self-deprecating bridesmaid, he is open about his dread of becoming irrelevant. After his father, George Romney, a three-term Michigan governor, lost the state’s primary in 1968, he struggled to get meetings. “I remember my dad becoming quite frustrated,” Romney said. “He used to say that Washington is the fastest place to go from ‘Who’s Who’ to ‘Who’s That?’ ” In the saturated media landscape of today, the son has been luckier. “I have been able to get on TV, get key interviews, get op-eds published,” Romney said. When I showed up in Wolfeboro, as Romney led me to the living room, he made sure we were on the record. “You have a tape recorder? Notebook?” he asked me as he was describing the potential mold problems of New Hampshire storage. He wanted to make sure I got this.
Sometimes it seems more as if some who call themselves journalists are trying to draft Mitt Romney to run for president again. And while Byron York, as a conservative advocate, has every reason to hope for influence in 2016 GOP presidential selection, he was at least capable of removing his reporter’s cap while pitching for a Romney run.
In truth, Leibovich might simply be reading Romney wrongly, though it seems unlikely given the soft-focus opening, transition into the stark wasteland of the rich man’s burdens, and inevitable pitch for why Mitt Romney is running (or, as such, “isn’t ready to call it quits”). But much of what Leibovich reads into that one in a million chance is also evident of some bitterness for having been rejected at the ballot box.
“Romney also seemed eager to put much less frivolous points on the record”, Leibovich writes, and the remainder of the paragraph is given to describing Mitt Romney as a petulant fencepost gossip:
He spoke dismissively about his visit to the White House shortly after the 2012 election—the cursory meeting in which the former combatants are supposed to play gracious, take pictures together and make noises about issues on which they might work together in the future. “It was intended to check a box,” Romney said of the president’s invitation. He was not offered any follow-up, which was typical, Romney said, according to what he heard from some of his executive friends. “No one gets the impression that what they are saying is being incorporated,” he told me. “I won’t mention who it was, but I met with one of the nation’s top Republican leaders, and he said, ‘You know the strange thing is that the president seems to answer to only two people—Valerie Jarrett and Michelle Obama.'”
And Romney goes on with the usual Republican partisan complaints; he is still a faithful Talking Points Republican, drawing contrasts between his own ability to work across the aisle with Obama’s disgust with Republican behavior: “‘That’s the nature of democracy,’ he said, shaking his head with an exaggerated grimace.” He denounces administration foreign policy as if it was a psychiatric disorder and then boasts that he is much “more passionate” regarding foreign affairs than we saw in the 2012 campaign, “which was largely given over to domestic affairs”, Leibovich reminds: “It went without saying that this probably wouldn’t be the case in 2016.”
And then things just get weird; Leibovich contrasts Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI01), the 2012 vice presidential candidate, on the amount of scripting and “stock standard” presentation a candidate puts on, with Romney. It “drives me nuts, personally”, Ryan suggested in the documentary Mitt, released earlier this year.
When I asked Romney the same question, however, he said the exact opposite. “There will be no free time in the back of the plane where you’d just go back and shoot the breeze with the media,” he told me. He would do this occasionally, but his aides argued against it. “They were always afraid that, you know, I’d make some little joke or someone would ask some question that couldn’t be answered — you know, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ ” Romney told me that during the campaign, the F.B.I. informed him that a foreign government — he wouldn’t say which — was reading his emails. This was another reminder that there could be no safe zone, no such thing as an unplugged candidate. “The era of spontaneity in politics is over,” he declared, as I immediately wondered when it had started.
Romney goes on to tell how he told wone of his political advisors, “If I had to do this again, I’d insist that you literally had a camera on me at all times. I want to be reminded that this is not off the cuff.” Of the infamous Forty-Seven Percent gaffe†:
Romney told me that the statement came out wrong, because it was an attempt to placate a rambling supporter who was saying that Obama voters were essentially deadbeats.
“My mistake was that I was speaking in a way that reflected back to the man,” Romney said. “If I had been able to see the camera, I would have remembered that I was talking to the whole world, not just the man.” I had never heard Romney say that he was prompted into the “47 percent” line by a ranting supporter. It was also impossible to ignore the phrase “If I had to do this again.”
Perhaps most curiously, Leibovich ends his vignette noir‡ reflection with a curious contradiction:
No matter how content he appeared, when the conversation turned to his disappointment in losing, his voice dropped. “It really kills me,” he said. “It really kills me.” He became inaudible, and it seemed as if he might tear up.
As if to rescue him, Ann called out from the kitchen that lunch was ready. Mitt remained in the living room, now staring at the floor. “The consequences of my loss are very clear to me and to a lot of people,” he said. “And that’s really hard.” His voice dropped to nearly a whisper, before he caught himself and quickly pivoted. “Let’s get a sandwich!” he bellowed.
Following behind, I informed the defending Republican nominee that I would now be turning off my tape recorder and that he could relax. “Oh,” he said, “you can keep recording.”
The question unanswered: What are those consequences, Mr. Romney? Are you offering more bitterness about how much better life would be if you had won? Or are you acknowledging the reality that the third time probably wouldn’t be the charm?
Let us be clear: What might change—that one in a million chance—is that the GOP will present a clown car in the primaries, whereupon Mitt might descend from his ivory tower to suffer one more run for president, in order that Republicans can at least put on a respectable show.
Or maybe he really is going to run, and what everyone spinning these narratives for Romney 2016 already knows is that the rest of this reflection and disappointment and verging on tears is just a closer calculating what it takes to make the deal happen.
† See our recent discussion of the Kinsley gaffe, which, broadly speaking, is described as an inadvertent admission of a vulnerable truth. In this case, it’s actually a footnote. Well, okay, endnote. Either way.
‡ It really is a painstakingly constructed, exceptionally stylized presentation. To that end, Leibovich is nearly impeccable. The tragic flaw unknitting the surrogate Mitt he tries to breathe life into, however, is that most mythopoeic constructs would not survive political scrutiny. That is to say, Leibovich has fashioned an entertaining story.
Jabaji, Rawan. “Whip Count: Calling Congress back to vote on ISIS”. msnbc. 29 September 2014.
Leibovich, Mark. “Mitt Isn’t Ready to Call It Quits”. The New York Times Magazine. 30 September 2014.