Following his very well received CPAC speech, I met with Mitt Romney in a small meeting room in the hotel where thousands of conservatives have gathered. While his critics and much of the media ding him as “plastic,” in person he is warmer and more at ease than the average pol. Most politicians after a big speech will pump you for compliments: “How was I? What d’ya think?” Romney doesn’t do that, perhaps reflective of the fact that he really didn’t live most of his life as a politician and doesn’t crave personal approval as many who’ve spent their lives in public office do. That’s been an advantage, but also a handicap at certain points in the campaign.
I ask him if the purpose of his speech was to respond to critics saying his campaign needs more policy meat on its bones. “I don’t know that any speech is going to respond to all the different concerns. What I wanted to do was lay out a conservative vision and [explain] the roots of my conservatism,” he answers. Will he do more on taxes? “Yes,” he responds promptly. “We’ve talked about two immediate things we can do: Bring the corporate tax down from 35 percent to 25 percent, and eliminate cap-gains for people in the middle [class].” He said he would roll out the full tax reform plan “as soon as it gets through modeling.” Romney is not the candidate to charge forward without data. It doesn’t sound like a flat tax. He talks about “lowering rates and lowering deductions and exemptions.” (That sounds more akin to the plan suggested by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).) He promises, with a not-so-subtle shot at his critics, “You can be sure I won’t be doing it to lower taxes on the top one percent. It will be pro-growth.”
Shifting to the topic of Iran, he dismisses the idea we should strive for a diplomatic solution.”It is stick and stick,” he says, banishing the carrots from his equation. He then ticks off the list of measures he would pursue: “crippling sanctions, indict Ahmadinejad under the genocide convention, treat their diplomats and businessmen like pariahs — we did that with South Africa — and develop a military option and communicate that we have one.” He adds, “I don’t mind talking,” but argues that, realistically, most of the talking is just a stalling tactic by “tyrants.”
In reference to Syria and Iran, he declares, “Where you have someone who is a brutal tyrant killing his people you call him out immediately. You support openly and aggressively the people [opposing him].” He urges that we move decisively to “remove Assad” although he says he doesn’t see a military role now for the U.S. He also contends this is a way to weaken Iran. “It is obvious Syria is Iran’s key ally, its path to the sea.” He is dismissive of Obama’s approach. “Instead of calling him a reformer we should have been aggressively pushing [to get him out].”
With regard to Egypt, he tells me, “I accept that it was a difficult situation.” While our sentiments were with the protestors, we had also had a longterm relationship with Hosni Mubarak, he explains. “But once they had had their change we should have been all over” the regime to move ahead with reforms, he says.
I ask him about an incident when he was at Bain, which was briefly mentioned in the 2008 campaign, but hasn’t been asked about this time around: His decision to essentially shut down Bain Capital and move his whole company from Boston to New York for several days to launch a search for a partner’s missing daughter. I also ask why he doesn’t talk about it. After all, it’s not exactly what you’d expect from the cartoon character rich guy that the media and opponents have painted. He smiles, shakes his head, “You can understand why I don’t talk about it.” Before I can ask him to explain, he proceeds to tell the story.
“One of my partners came into see me. I think it was a Tuesday. He said his young daughter had gone to New York City — he lived in Connecticut — without permission. She had gone to one of these rave parties and she hadn’t come home.” So, he matter-of-factly recalls, he told his employees, “‘We’re all going to New York.’ We rented rooms near the airport. We hired a private investigator. We worked with the police, and set up a hot line.” He continues, “We had lot of associations in New York.” A drug store chain that Bain had invested in printed up fliers of the girl and stuck one in every bag a customer took home. He tells me, “We got our accountants, Price-Waterhouse, to look for her. We got our law firm to send some people.” With military precision, he recalls, “We divided up New York on a grid.” Then the small army of volunteers went door to door with a her picture asking if anyone had seen her. He tells me, “After a day or two I was at a club — one of these places that opens at 1 a.m. — where they play this techno-music.” (Listening to the quintessential 1950’s dad describe this is quite funny, although the subject matter is deadly serious.) “Some people said they’d seen seen her. And with these people in suits going around with a picture of a girl we got a lot of media attention. So a call came into the hotline asking if there was a reward. The person said yes, but the caller hung up.” Romney pauses and then continues. “But we traced the call to New Jersey. The police went to the home and found her in the basement in a drugged state.” He recalls, now choking up, “I got the call at that club that we found her.” He tears up a bit, “I still get emotional about this.” He then adds, “She’s a lovely woman now — married with kids.”
That story, and Romney’s reticence about using it tell you much of what you need to know about him. His methodical and cool, data-driven methodology often conceals sentiment. He is by training and mental habit a businessman, who can work through problem better than almost anyone else, but not a politician and not a orator.
As we wrap up I ask him how he is dealing with the ups and downs of the rollercoaster campaign. With the cacophony of conflicting advice and often incorrect media accounts, he says simply: “You have to be able to [focus].” He adds that politics is very different from his business life. “You get to talk about what you care about. If they don’t accept it, fine. In business you can work hard and achieve [your goals]. In politics, a lot is not in your control — world events, other candidates. If you try to control it all, you will be overwhelmed.”
He doesn’t seem like a man overwhelmed or who lost three races this week. Letting skeptical voters see what he genuinely thinks and feels and not just how he problem-solves will, to a large degree, determine if and when he can win the nomination.