What ‘Mitt’ taught me about Mitt

Mitt Romney was never really sure he could win the presidency. Or that he really wanted to.

That fact became apparent as I watched "Mitt," a friendly documentary of the former Massachusetts governor's two bids for the nation's top office, produced by Greg Whiteley. Time and again during the film, Romney and his family show an ambivalence about what he/they are doing that is striking, given that he devoted the better part of eight years to trying to become president.

Coming to grips with his loss to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the New Hampshire primary in 2008, Romney laments the characterization of himself as a "flipping Mormon" and adds, presciently, that if voters never get beyond the idea he has changed positions, "I think I'm a flawed candidate." When his brother, Scott, urges him to keep running after losing Florida to McCain, Romney demurs, insisting that he doesn't want to fake it with activists and donors. Following his clear victory in the first presidential debate over President Obama in October 2012, Romney is cautious, reminding his family that Obama won't make the same mistake again. Following the second debate, he is downright downtrodden — predicting that the public would say he lost the debate "80-20." When it's clear he has lost Ohio, Romney is quickly trying out concession lines on his family even as they sit silently. Campaign manager Matt Rhoades calls to tell him to hold off on conceding the race even as Romney is quite clearly ready to pack it in. "My time on the stage is over," he tells his family, even as some people in the room are constructing electoral vote scenarios that might still deliver him the presidency.

Now, Whiteley undoubtedly shot hundreds of hours of footage that he had to pare down to a film that runs just over 90 minutes. So it's entirely possible that there is footage on the cutting room floor that shows a Romney overflowing with confidence about his prospects and fully certain he is doing the right thing by running. (The closest Romney gets to confident in the film is when he is shown composing some of what would be a victory speech on Election Day 2012.) And, there is, of course, some level of "aw shucks" self-deprecation happening here, too, since Romney and his family are aware that they are being filmed at all times.

And yet, for all of that, I was left with an acute sense that Romney never was certain that he was doing the right thing — particularly for his family — in running for president. To be clear: Romney believes strongly that his vision for the future of the country is superior to that of Obama. That comes across strongly when, while trying to write his concession speech, Romney rails against the idea of borrowing money endlessly until the country "goes off a cliff." Rather, on a more personal level, Romney is clearly a man divided about whether the whole thing is worth it.

On one level, it's easy to see why: Romney is someone with a very nice life — wealthy, with a family that by all accounts adores him, successful in business — without politics.  With politics, his life is less charmed. On another level, one of the keys to being elected to the nation's highest office is wanting it more than anything else in your life — past, present or future. That never was Romney. It's not the only reason he lost, but it's part of the equation.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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