A fixture of Mitt Romney’s second run for president is how little interest Romney claims to have in actually running for president.
On the trail, Romney often downplays his interest in politics, and suggests his extremely professional and highly expensive campaign for the White House is something of a lark.
“I never imagined that I would be running for President of the United States,” I heard Romney tell a crowd in Council Bluffs, Iowa a couple days before the caucuses. “I spent my life in business. I sort of backed into getting involved in politics. I’ve been governor for four years…I point out, I didn’t inhale, I’m still the business guy.”
At a stop in Atlantic, Iowa, I heard him say the 2012 campaign wasn’t even his idea.
“My family got me into this again,” Romney said in a crowded diner. “My dear wife was the one that convinced me to run again, believing that having spent my life in the private sector, having learned how jobs come and go, that I was in a good position to get this private sector, this economy moving again. I want to help small business, I want to help small business succeed and thrive.”
At the final debate before the New Hampshire primary, an exasperated Newt Gingrich called him on this, saying he should “drop the pious baloney.” Gingrich may be on to something.
It’s commonplace for commentators to pick up on Romney’s own admissions of how affected he was by his father’s run for President in 1967. George Romney, then governor of Michigan, briefly looked as if he could head off Richard Nixon and get to the top of the GOP ticket. But that was before he committed what’s become an almost legendary gaffe. He described briefings by U.S. generals on Vietnam policies as “the greatest brainwashing anybody can get.”
Things went downhill from there, and the younger Romney closely studied what went wrong in his father’s campaign. The mistakes his father made clearly have been a point of study for Mitt Romney, and he’s kept the story of his dad’s presidential run close. This is what he told the Washington Post last year:
“[It] made me believe that my father felt he was thrust into the limelight before he had really made a decision to run and before he was ready,” Romney says. “He became an instant front-runner. . . . Everything he did and said was scrutinized.” Romney pauses. “And bringing down the front-runner is sport.”
Romney’s assertions about a lack of political ambition would also come as quite a shock to many of the people who have supported him over the years. Take, for instance, Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who just so happens to be running for President on the Justice Party ticket. Anderson was a Democrat before he went Justice, but he’s a Democrat Romney worked with closely during his management of the 2002 Olympics. The pair later crossed the divide to endorse each other openly in their respective races. As The Daily Beast tells it, in the two men’s conversations, “Romney made no secret about his gubernatorial ambitions.”
At a similar time, Romney was also courting the vote of moderate and liberal-leaning groups who remember him as suggesting he was aiming even higher than a governorship. An abortion rights activist Romney courted in 2002 remembers him as saying “You need somebody like me in Washington.” As the LA Times put it:
Though running for state office, Romney hinted at national ambitions and said he would soften the GOP’s position on abortion.
That was in 2002. It’s worth remembering that eight years before, Romney kicked off his political life in a closely fought battle with Massachusetts’ senior senator, the late Ted Kennedy. At Sunday’s debate Romney downplayed this race, saying he knew he “didn’t have a ghost of a chance at beating him,” and claiming he only half-jokingly told the partners at his firm, “I’ll be back in six months; don’t take my chair.”
Again, the candidate’s brother, Scott Romney, remembers things somewhat differently, as the Washington Post reported:
About the same time Scott Romney witnessed a private moment that he believed spoke to his brother’s arrival in a new place. His father referred to his brother’s leadership at Bain and the Olympics before observing, “Mitt, you’ve had many more critical decisions to make in business than I ever did.” Scott believed his father was saying something more: “In many ways, Mitt is far more prepared to lead than my dad was. . . . My dad felt the same way.”
The “I’m just a humble businessman who happens to be running for President” schtick was less in evidence during Romney’s 2008 run, when he did promote his corporate work but also played up his experience as a pragmatic governor whose crowning achievement was bipartisan healthcare reform. Of course, those were the days before anyone had heard of the phrase “Obamacare.”
This time, however, Romney has tended to mention government service only when he can bludgeon his opponents with theirs. The Romney camp clearly decided their best line of attack against both the Rick Perry and Barack Obama would be to smear them as “career politicians” — the not-so-subtle insinuation being that they didn’t have any experience of the real world.
The funny thing is that for all the elaborate explanations one can give mapping out evidence that Romney’s ambitions have long been higher than he claims, Newt Gingrich is pretty good at popping them with one jab. At one of December’s debates he deadpanned: “The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is that you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.”
“Now wait a second,” expostulated an outraged Romney, as laughter and boos both emanated from the audience.
That about sums things up. You can relive that moment below: