BOSTON — At his campaign’s Election Night rally here, Mitt Romney offered a short concession speech bringing to an end a decade-long quest for the presidency that stretched across two elections, one financial collapse, and the rise of an implacably conservative tea party movement. His struggle to reconcile the moderate northeastern Republicanism that had been the hallmark of his early political career with the volatile, edgy, anger-fueled politics of the last four years was in many ways the story of his campaign — and perhaps the cause of his downfall.
Romney apologized for letting down his supporters, but offered no regrets for the campaign he had run or the effort he and his team had made.
“Like so many of you, Paul and I have left everything on the field. We have given our all to this campaign,” Romney said. “I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead the country in a different direction. But the nation chose another leader and so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray or him and for this great nation.”
Romney’s path to Tuesday night’s loss took him through the unpredictable waters of Republican politics since George W. Bush became the party’s standard-bearer in 2000. Romney flipped between moderate and conservative as the party he eventually won over in April tried to figure out its identity. First he was the man who beat back liberals to make universal health care into a Republican cause. Then he was the conservative purist warning Republicans away from the moderate John McCain in 2008. Then he was the level-headed establishment type trying to keep the party from forming up behind incendiary figures like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Finally he was the blue state Republican railing against partisanship and promising a new path.
Each of these roles brought Romney closer to his goal of occupying the Oval Office, but the weight of them all kept him from crossing the finish line against a Democratic President who was able to turn every one of Romney’s past lives into a liability.
Looking back, Romney’s campaign really only had two great moments. First was when he chose conservative idol Paul Ryan as his running mate, finally bringing a skeptical base fully onto Team Romney. The second was on the debate stage in Denver, when he took advantage of a listless President Obama to make a direct-to-camera moderate case to the electorate that briefly sent his poll numbers surging.
Other than those two moments — which were brazen and unexpected — Romney’s campaign was one of caution and getting caught flat-footed. Team Romney was clearly unprepared for the electorate it faced in the primaries, which was willing to give anyone not named Romney a good, long look. After securing the nomination, Romney’s campaign appeared unsure how to respond during months of withering attacks over Bain and Romney’s tax returns launched by Obama’s forces during the summer.
Romney never really ran on his personality or personal vision for the country, part of a campaign strategy that seemed to keep Romney on a tight leash while hoping disappointment over the economy would rally voters to his cause without alienating them. As his party struggled with immigration and women’s health issues during the year, the cautious Romney strategy — along with concerns over alienating the skeptical segments of the base — kept the Republican nominee from guiding the GOP through the rocky waters and putting any kind of “Romney Brand” on the party he led.
This is not to say the strategy was completely flawed. Polls through most of the year appeared to vindicate the idea that the public was cool to Obama and ready to try something different. But the Ryan pick — while rallying the base — made it harder for Romney to distance himself from the Congress, which has also left the public weary. And the Denver debate, while a strong performance, came too late and with too much past baggage to turn things around completely.
Romney now enters the next phase of his life as a national Republican. His wife has said he won’t run again. But when it comes to Romney it’s hard to say never to anything.