The overriding impression I have gotten from personal and professional interactions with left-of-center friends and colleagues over the last two weeks is that they all woke up on November 7 after a (perhaps boozy) night of Obama victory parties eager to pose a critical question: Who is Mitt Romney, and does he have the personal character to be a good president?
I exaggerate but little; the posthumous vetting of the Republican nominee is real, and no less sigh-inducing for its predictability. Anybody who’d been paying attention to this (or any recent) election could see it around the bend months ago, that should Romney have the good grace to lose to Their Guy, he might at least enjoy a restoration, by their lights, to the ranks of the technically human.
Not even the piling on over Romney’s post-loss “gifts” comments (which, far from being the second coming of “47 percent,” as some pundits claim, are rather an unfortunately sober appraisal of our patronage politics — but that’s another column) can obscure the fresh waves of good will toward the politically neutralized Romney.
Recall that two weeks ago, Romney was still a plutocratic pooch-torturer whose presidential ambition was mainly a function of his desire to eliminate the nation’s prophylactic scourge and surveil every uterus from sea to shining sea. He was all of these things because of a brutally effective smear op by the Obama campaign, the par-for-the-course passivity of the mainstream media, and an insufficiently responsive Romney shop. The height of this confluence of complacencies was the chuckle-fest that emerged after Romney’s “binders full of women” comment in the second debate. This was not a gaffe by any coherent definition of that word, but was nevertheless transmogrified into a “joke.” The scare quotes are here necessary because the reaction from media new and old was more a giddy, groping gesture at humor, an exercise in meme manufacturing, than a fully gestated comedy bit. For something to be genuinely funny it has to hit some element of truth, and in the case of “#binders” it’s not even clear what purported truth was in the crosshairs.
But the vague, ill-defined malevolence of the phrase was enough to go on because Romney had already been painted as both mystified by and hostile toward an entire gender. Just as the Obama campaign’s ill-defined attacks on Romney’s ill-defined tax plan worked because Romney was already embossed in the narrative as a greedy millionaire intent on looking out for his sailing pals. Perhaps the most depressing measure of the success of this vilification is the fact that in most exit polls, Romney won on the question of who would do better on jobs and the economy. Fat lot of good that did.
How things change. During the campaign, the MSNBC-Kos axis freely wondered whether Romney was a “political sociopath.” But a week after November 6, Ed Schultz was already calling him a “stand-up guy” and Up host Chris Hayes (for whom, I should note, in contrast to Schultz, I have great respect) revealed that “I’ve always been in the small minority of observers who thought Mitt Romney was a good candidate.” Even celebrity Obama boosters were getting in on the act. Actress Elizabeth Banks, among those starlets who piled on the Romney-hates-women jag, tweeted that it was a “Classy concession speech by Mitt Romney . . . took high road, no excuses, and the country can move on.”
At his first post-election press conference this week, President Obama himself found a new soft spot for Romney. He praised the governor for his “terrific job running the Olympics” and suggested that his “skill set” could help the country. “There may be ideas he has with respect to jobs and growth that can help middle-class families,” the newly magnanimous president allowed. Could this Romney be the same one who etch-a-sketched from belief set to belief set and made his living destroying jobs? It hardly seems possible.
Of course, the post hoc love fest raises the question of how much of this good will was there for the taking ante hoc. That is, could the Romney campaign have done more to make their guy likable when it counted?
I’ve heard a few theories on this from people who either covered the campaign from the outside or were close with those who ran it from the inside. The most widespread explanation is that the campaign made a deliberate decision to limit the resources spent selling Romney-the-man. The thinking was that they couldn’t beat the president on likability in any event, and were better served by selling Romney, to paraphrase Ramesh Ponnuru, as a robot programmed to create jobs. A second, less obvious but perhaps more intriguing, theory is that leading with an account of Romney’s good deeds would have entailed delving deeply into the weeds of Mormonism (because, for example, much of Romney’s personal kindnesses came in his capacity as a church leader, and much of his charitable donations came in the form of tithing) and that this would have opened a whole new can of invertebrates that the campaign wasn’t eager to deal with.
One or both may well be true, and, combined with Romney’s apparent constitutional incapability to pat himself on the back for being a decent human being, they may have made the cuddlization of Romney a dubious strategy. But it isn’t as if the campaign worked to keep the stories secret. It did what it could, in convention testimonials, in YouTube ads, and in the mouths of surrogates (not least Paul Ryan in the nationally televised VP debate, though his boosterism was lost in the vice president’s Nicholsonesque cackling), to spread the word. But it was not preponderating. Why wasn’t it preponderating?
Isn’t the answer obvious? #binders.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.