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Missing Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney's decision to withdraw from the Republican presidential campaign will surely please a lot of people -- starting with his rivals, both present and former.  It was no secret that Romney was widely reviled among the candidates.  Romney's willingness to transform his entire political persona, from the moderate technocrat who governed in Massachusetts to the conservative crusader who tried -- without enough success -- to win over the Republican base, really was breathtaking, even by the standards of politicians.  That, combined with his willingness to spend untold sums of his personal wealth on ads attacking his competitors, was bound to make him unpopular.

Still, his decision provokes mixed feelings from me.  Romney's faith is the primary reason, I suspect, evangelicals never embraced him.  (You could argue it was the transparency of his shifts, but that hasn't stopped them from embracing other converts to the cause in the past.)  And it's troubling that so many voters would shun a potentially promising candiate because they found his religion weird, if not offensive.

What's more, of all the Republican contenders, Romney probably would have made the best president.  His history suggests he was an uncommonly talented manager, thanks to a combination of raw intelligence and leadership instincts.  He would have pushed for policies I found highly objectionable, for sure, but he wouldn't have been incompetent -- like, say, the present occupant of the White House.  I can imagine him vetoing important spending bills and starving important social services.  But I can't imagine him launching an ill-conceived war -- or prosecuting it without a plan about the aftermath.

Then again, Romney is hardly blameless for these problems.  He was the one who insisted that faith -- or, at least, faithfulness -- was a prerequisite for holding office.  As Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in a devastating essay for the New Yorker, "it is not true that 'freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,' as Romney maintained. What freedom, including religious freedom, requires is, precisely, secularism—which is to say, state neutrality in matters of religion." Also, it was Romney who decided to position himself as the conservative in the race, rather than emphasizing his record of (relative) moderation. (His withdrawal speech, to the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, seems all too consistent with this shift.)

Sometimes, of course, Romney's other persona did come through.  Here in Michigan, as his campaign was reeling, Romney finally rediscovered that persona and ran on it.  And it resonated with a Republican electorate eager to put an accomplished businessman in charge of the economy.  I have no idea whether it was simply too late to save his candidacy -- or whether, in fact, it simply had less appeal outside of Michigan, a state with the nation's highest unemployment rate and fond memories of Mitt's late father, former governor and presidential candidate George Romney. 

Back when I first wrote about Romney, almost a year ago, I spent a lot of time exploring his childhood here -- particularly his time as a boarding student at the Cranbrook School, an elite private academy in the suburbs north of Detroit.  As several of his old friends suggested, it couldn't have been easy to grow up with such a famous, widely respected father -- particularly at a place like Cranbrook, which demanded both ambition and success from its precocious students of privilege.  Romney was a good student but not a great one; he never made much of a dent in extracurriculars; and he possessed almost no athletic ability. 

But Romney's old friends also noted how seriously he took the idea of obligation to the public, something both Cranbrook and Mitt's parents had emphasized.  They described Romney as somebody well aware of his good fortune -- and determined to give something back, by seeking public office and then, when elected, acting as a steward for the public interest.  Alas, that instinct always seemed to compete with Romney's ambition -- and, I think, ambition won far too many times.   

In the 1950s and 1960s, George Romney made some his greatest contributions as a private citizen, whether it was rescuing the Detroit schools or rewriting the state constitution.  Mitt has already proven a success in similar endeavors, most famously when he took over the failing 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.  Now that his presidential campaign is over, perhaps he can return to projects of that sort, where his many talents can be best put to use.

--Jonathan Cohn