Romney, Revisited

I suppose the most surprising thing about Greg Whiteley’s Mitt is how unsurprising it all is.

The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month and has since become available on Netflix, is a documentary of Mitt Romney’s two runs for the White House, in 2008 and 2012, covering six years in the life of the former Massachusetts governor and his family, to whom Whiteley was granted exclusive access.

A mere 90 minutes in length, Mitt inevitably is able only to scratch the surface of Romney’s journey from long-shot also-ran in 2008 to frontrunner and Republican nominee four years later.  I would be extremely interested to view, say, a three-hour cut culled from the same material.  Except I suspect that such a document, if it existed, would be no more informative or enlightening than the version we currently have.

I don’t mean this as a critique of the film itself, but rather as a reflection that Romney, the presidential candidate, is exactly who we thought he was all along.  It may be that unless and until he runs yet again—it’s not impossible, if you believe the rumors—we have learned all we ever will about what makes Mitt Romney tick.

Mitt, the documentary, is an agreeable mixture of fly-on-the-wall observation and one-on-one interaction with its subjects.  There are poignant moments with Ann Romney, who expresses her exasperation with the whole process of running for president, and a flash of amusing candidness from Josh Romney, one of the couple’s five sons, who asks the camera whether he should say what he really thinks or what he has been “trained” to say about his perfect, wonderful old dad.  (He ends up doing both.)

On the other hand, Mitt contains precious few interactions with the man himself, and makes only nominal attempts to truly get inside Mitt Romney’s head.  Was it a condition of Whiteley’s access that he only probe so deep?

That’s not to say the movie contains no moments of illumination or clarity.  My sense is that Romney voters will see Mitt as a validation of their support, while those on Team Obama will feel their efforts to defeat Romney were well-founded and worth the trouble.

In other words, most people’s perceptions about the GOP standard-bearer will be confirmed by this film, and there is definite value in learning that your superficial hunch was right on the money.

In perhaps the movie’s most compelling scene, we find Romney in a hotel room with family, railing self-righteously against the longstanding “flip flopper” label as unfair and untrue—but also, interestingly, as perhaps politically insurmountable.  “Maybe I’ve gotta live with it,” he concedes.  “In which case, I think I’m a flawed candidate.”

It is a moment in which Romney, even in the midst of a temper tantrum, is able to soberly and realistically assess his prospects, treating his own personality as if it were any other product that he, a CEO by trade, might be selling to a wide audience.  Few presidential candidates are as clear-eyed and self-critical as that.

We see this quality elsewhere in the movie, as well.  Following his triumphant first debate performance against President Obama, Romney wastes no time in concluding (correctly, it turned out) that the second and third matchups will not be so easy, citing past examples from history to make his point.

Further, it was indeed Romney, all the way back in January 2008, who most deeply understood what a formidable force Barack Obama had become in the Democratic primaries, following his victory in the Iowa caucuses.  (Romney’s fellow Republican candidates were still focused entirely on Hillary Clinton.)

One conclusion we might draw is that, in the world of politics, Mitt Romney is perhaps better-suited as a strategist rather than a candidate—a man who understands human nature but struggles to forge connections with actual humans outside of his familial inner circle.

We could even go as far to say that he would make a better president than candidate.  There is something to be said for a commander-in-chief with the ability to resist drinking his own Kool-Aid—a person who can diagnose a problem when he sees it, even if he doesn’t necessarily possess a ready-made solution to it.

While the theory of “running America like a business” is hardly settled political science, there are clear advantages to having a chief executive who thinks like a businessman.

The final takeaway of Mitt, then, is that despite Romney’s evident strengths, he was unable to convince the American public that his product on offer was something they were interested in buying in the first place.

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