Undaunted by a growing backlash from members of his own party, Mitt Romney's third campaign for president continues apace. His supporters and confidantes have blanketed the national media with his new pitch, which is focused, somewhat unbelievably for a former private equity titan better known for his car elevator than his common touch, on solving the problem of poverty in America.
Along with this shiny new message comes a shiny new messenger. As The Washington Post reports, "If he runs again in 2016, Romney is determined to re-brand himself as authentic, warts and all."
Set aside, if you can, the head-smacking irony of Romney treating authenticity as an exercise in branding. Instead, let's focus on how Romney plans to reinvent himself once again, which according to all accounts has been inspired by the warm response to the Netflix campaign documentary Mitt. "The film reveals Romney's flashes of raw emotion, both joy and anguish — kneeling down in prayer, comforting his crying wife in his lap, and scooping up his grandkids in monster hugs," the Post writes. The thinking goes that if voters were to see the true Romney — in particular, the man who has devoted much of his life in service to the Mormon Church — he would have a better chance of winning the White House. In other words, let Mitt be Mitt.
The problem with this logic is that is based on a fatal misreading of Mitt the movie.
As someone who enjoyed Mitt and reviewed it positively, I can see where the temptation comes from. The Romney who appears in the movie (humble, hard-working, and surprisingly funny) could not have been farther from the Romney we saw on the campaign trail (stiff, haughty, and weirdly condescending about everything from baking cookies to preparing for the Olympic Games).
But it is easy to see how Romney could undermine this newfound image — namely, by running for president for a third time in a row. What Romney and his advisers fail to understand is that much of his charm in the movie comes from being a loser, and from accepting his loss with far more grace than one would expect from a hyper-competitive captain of industry. Throwing his hat in the ring yet again is precisely the wrong lesson to take from the movie, a move that instantly negates all the good will he has earned and makes Romney appear self-entitled. If at first you don't succeed, please, please do not try again.
Romney's camp has not helped matters by suggesting that he views the presidency as some kind of sacred duty. As a close friend of the Romney family told The New York Times, Romney's flirtation with a third attempt at the White House comes from an "almost devout belief that he needs to do something for this country." It apparently hasn't dawned on Romney that there are other ways to serve his beloved country than running for president. Indeed, the most incisive post-mortem of the Romney 2012 campaign was a satirical report in The Awl called "The Amazing Reformation of Mitt and Ann Romney," which imagines a post-election life in which they are content to work at soup kitchens, hang out with homeless people, and start a charity for inner-city schoolchildren. It's funny because it's not true.
This gets to a broader blind spot in Team Romney's interpretation of Mitt. The scenes that showcase the family's religious devotion — particularly one of group prayer in which one family member intones, "Our desires in doing this are pure" — are indeed fascinating and intense. They certainly shed light on Mitt Romney as a human being and devout Mormon. But it does not follow that this is what Americans want from their president.
To the contrary, it is somewhat disconcerting that Romney has apparently reserved all his charity and acts of kindness for members of his own church, if we are to judge from the testimonials of his friends and allies. "In spite of the comments about the '47 percent,' he now talks about lifting the poor," a friend told the Post. "That's something he's done his whole life, but he's done it quietly, ministering his faith and helping people who are struggling with this issue or that issue. That was all hidden last time."
This attitude is of a piece with the conservative notion that resolving the inequities of life in America is best left to the private sphere — to churches, charities, and the like. It does not suggest that a President Romney would be prepared to use the government to solve the problem of inequality.
There was a Mitt Romney who believed this once, the one who passed RomneyCare as governor of Massachusetts. But that is not the Romney that is being resurrected. Instead, we're getting the guy from Mitt.