I saw the “Mitt” documentary and here are some quick thoughts:
1. The first half of the documentary really shows how the Republican primary debates differed in the 2008 and 2012 cycles. Romney was by far the best Republican debater in the 2012 cycle. He didn’t win every exchange, but he won most of them, and it was clear which candidate on stage had mastered the form. Romney was fine in the 2008 debates. He was top tier. Romney’s debating certainly wasn’t a weakness, but he didn’t stick out as obviously the best. Did Romney improve between 2008 and 2012?
Maybe a little, but I think the big difference was in the competition. It is a lot easier for a quarterback to look good if the other team’s defensive line can’t bring pressure and their defensive backs can’t cover. Mike Huckabee and John McCain were more formidable debaters than any of Romney’s 2012 cycle Republican opponents. (Gingrich was as verbally talented as anyone, but he was so undisciplined and compromisedboth ethically and ideologicallythat he was sure to collapse as soon as he faced scrutiny.)
It wasn’t just the quality of the competition. It was also the dynamic of the debates. In the 2012 cycle, the right-of-Romney pack would focus their attacks on whoever emerged as the main conservative alternative to Romney. This happened right down to the very last debate where Ron Paul primarily attacked Rick Santorum. That made life a little easier for Romney. In the 2008 cycle, Huckabee and McCain (who both seemed to genuinely disdain Romney) attacked Romney more than they attacked each other. In the 2012 cycle, Romney’s less talented opponents were usually fighting a two-front war against Romney and the pack. In the 2008 cycle, Romney was fighting a two-front war against candidates more formidable than anyone he faced in the 2012 nomination contest.
This isn’t to take anything away from Romney. The Romney of 2008 was a better debater than the Romney who was defeated in debate by Ted Kennedy in 1994. The Romney of 2012 was a better debater than the Romney of 2008. Romney was a hard working guy who did everything he could to get the most out of his talent, but his 2012 Republican opponents made him look a little better than he really was.
2. In the documentary, whenever Romney is talking about the economy in (relative) privacy, he always talks about what some successful entrepreneur told him about economic issues. It was all about how this businessman had too big of a tax burden or how this other businessman never would have started his business in the current regulatory environment. Romney was an extremely opportunistic politician, but he seems to have been authentically unable see the world from the perspective of the employee who was anxious about stagnant wages or afraid of losing her health insurance. For Romney, the economic concerns of those people genuinely seem to be entirely derivative of the economic interests of those high-earners who “built that.” At least that part of his campaign was real. More is the pity.
3. The most famous part of the documentary is where Romney, after beating Obama in the first debate, goes off on how much more impressed he is with the life of his father George than with his own accomplishments. It is a touching moment. Both of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns were far better than the presidential campaign of his dad (which has been a punch line for two generations). Mitt Romney is still able to keep in perspective how impressive it was that George Romney was able to run a car company and become governor without the benefit of any money or much of an education. Mitt calls his dad the “real deal.” Running a contemporary presidential campaign is an enormously complicated undertaking, but it is also kind of a fake deal. John Edwards won a couple of presidential primaries. It was wonderfully non-egomaniacal of Mitt Romney that he could keep such a healthy perspective on his dad’s life.