Romney's chances of becoming president are dimming, but if he changes his message, he could still lose gracefully.
Every presidential campaign reaches a moment when the two main candidates have to start their transition planning. 2012 is no different, and we've reached that moment. President Obama has to begin planning the transition to his second term. Governor Romney has to plan his return to private life. I'll focus on President Obama in several commentaries; this is a brief reflection on Mitt Romney.
First, what's the evidence that we've reached this point? FiveThirtyEight gives President Obama a 79.7 percent chance of winning reelection. Real Clear Politics shows a widening Obama lead in the polls, with an average margin of 4 percentage points. A significant break occurred approximately around the end of August. The Iowa Election Market is currently predicting that President Obama will win approximately 54 percent of the national vote, and the Intrade prediction market is currently pricing a 76 percent chance that President Obama wins reelection.
These are all just probabilities, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that we now mostly know where this election is headed. And no matter what gets said externally, this is what is being privately concluded by many in the Romney campaign also.
This means that Governor Romney has a difficult gauntlet to run -- one that is psychologically hard to confront. He has to run as hard as he can; he can't just stop. He will see growing dissension within his own campaign, increasing second-guessing from the Republican Party elders, public debates about his campaign strategy, and a growing lack of interest on the part of Senate, House, and gubernatorial candidates in being seen with him at all. Through this he has to act every moment as though he knows he will win. You cannot know how hard this is unless you've seen it close up. And Romney then faces the inevitable post-election ritual bloodletting and blame game, particularly because his party, in its soul, thought this election was a layup for them.
Governor Romney has to maneuver through all of this and retain his own self respect and the respect of others. But he also faces a bigger test -- one that may not yet have occurred to him. He has a genuine responsibility to show a decent respect for core elements of the American philosophy and system of governance.
It's hard to explain what I mean by this without seeming to make a partisan point, which in this case I'm trying to avoid. In my view, Mitt Romney seems to have been an admirable, effective leader with a genuine commitment to private virtue. But in his campaign he has allowed himself to be seen as an unprincipled opportunist, presented a thoroughly unpleasant caricature of conservative thought and an appalling view of his opinion of everyone less fortunate than he is, and at times shown remarkably little concern or respect for some of the complexities of American governance. He has acted as though "there is no there there," as though he sees this presidential campaign as just another campaign, just another deal to close.
I'll quote at length from a conservative columnist I respect, Michael Gerson:
Yet a Republican ideology pitting the “makers” against the “takers” offers nothing. No sympathy for our fellow citizens. No insight into our social challenge. No hope of change. This approach involves a relentless reductionism. Human worth is reduced to economic production. Social problems are reduced to personal vices. Politics is reduced to class warfare on behalf of the upper class.
A few libertarians have wanted this fight ever since they read "Atlas Shrugged” as pimply adolescents. Given Romney’s background, record and faith, I don’t believe that he holds this view. I do believe that Republicans often parrot it, because they lack familiarity with other forms of conservatism that include a conception of the common good.
But there really is no excuse. Republican politicians could turn to Burkean conservatism, with its emphasis on the “little platoons” of civil society. They could reflect on the Catholic tradition of subsidiarity, and solidarity with the poor. They could draw inspiration from Tory evangelical social reformers such as William Wilberforce or Lord Shaftesbury. Or they could just read Abraham Lincoln, who stood for “an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” Instead they mouth libertarian nonsense, unable to even describe some of the largest challenges of our time.
About a decade ago, I was part of a conversation with former Vice President Walter Mondale, a man I worked for a long time ago and greatly admire. Vice President Mondale said that while he was still bothered by the extent of his loss in 1984, he had to his surprise also come to a parallel realization: the role of presidential nominee of one of the two major parties is a distinct public role and job by itself, one that brings both substantial privileges and real responsibilities. The role cannot simply be a political campaign in that way that almost all other campaigns can be. A presidential candidate is given the right to speak to the American people, and they care what a presidential candidate says in a way they care about no other campaign.
Mitt Romney is almost certainly not going to have a presidential legacy, but he could still have a good presidential candidate legacy. Sometime soon, in the quiet of the night, he might want to call Walter Mondale.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.