SALT LAKE CITY – Mitt Romney hit the red carpet Friday night for the world premiere of “MITT,” the Netflix documentary about his unsuccessful 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. Following the screening at the Sundance Film Festival, Romney sat down with The Washington Post for a wide-ranging interview backstage at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in downtown Salt Lake City.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation, in which Romney revisited the campaign as well as shared his thoughts about President Obama’s recent troubles, the Republican Party’s efforts to rebuild, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bridge scandal and same-sex marriage in Utah, where Romney now lives part-time.
The Washington Post: What was your first reaction to the film?
Mitt Romney: I thought it was brilliant for Greg [Whiteley, the filmmaker] not to take us through the primaries. … It’s just like, do it, give quick shots, okay, we’re there, and then it’s much more interesting than going through all the ins and outs of the primaries.
WP: Did it bring back good memories?
Romney: What’s impossible to capture in the film are the associations and friendships that you make. This was our family and our interactions with each other, and it was very real. What it doesn’t show is the depth of feeling that I have for certain individuals on the campaign team and certain people around the country and people that were volunteers. We made some very close friends who continue to be close friends now.
WP: We saw a lot of Garrett Jackson [Romney’s personal aide and “body man”].
Romney: My sixth son! And then there’s Spencer [Zwick, the finance chairman], my seventh son. Garrett, don’t you love him?
WP: The movie showed a really warm, playful side of you, almost kind of three-dimensional. Do you feel like if your campaign had shown a little bit more of that — either shown parts of this movie or found ways to let you breathe a little more on the campaign trail — it would’ve made a difference?
Romney: I think it’d be great if each candidate produced a one-hour film and every voter watched each film and they got to know the candidates that way. But, you know, I don’t know how you communicate — particularly for a new candidate. For an incumbent like a president, who’s been in the news every day, their family, they’re well known. But for a new person challenging, how do you describe who you are? How do you do that in 30-second clips?
The best places we thought we could do that, that I thought we could do that, were the convention and the debates. … The convention — unfortunately, the networks cut back so much in the coverage that they didn’t see the film, the people that stood up and talked about the things we’d done together, so that just didn’t fill the role that I hoped it might. The debates actually worked, I think, very well for me. I think they helped me a lot. I think I was in a very difficult spot before the debates and post the debates, if you look at the numbers, you’ll see we did a lot better.”
WP: One thing that comes across clearly in the film is that you’re a man of faith and family. Those of us that covered you knew that, but we didn’t always see that. You didn’t talk about your faith much in the campaign. Do you think you should’ve opened that window a little more?
Romney: I was always happy to talk about being a man of faith and the divine nature of America and the people of America are a God-fearing people or we are a people that are willing to give to something bigger than our self. But I certainly didn’t want to talk about the specific doctrines of my church. I just didn’t feel I should be a spokesman for a church. But the fact that I prayed and that we’re a family of faith — people followed us to church, saw us singing the songs, we were there.
WP: One scene in the film that’s pretty compelling is that Christmas of 2006. You’re all in the living room, you’ve got your legal pad taking notes, and you’re having a family meeting about the pros and cons. If you were to do that all over again, knowing what you’ve experienced the last six years, would the pros and cons have been the same? Would you have arrived at the same decision?
Romney: I think we’d have arrived at the same decision. We’d probably learned from the experience. But the overarching reaction or perception was that the country was going in the wrong direction, that I had experience and skills that could help get it in the right direction, and that I should do it. And that there would be some pain associated with the process, but also some exhilaration. I think that’s accurate. I loved running for president. It’s not my time to do it again. Somebody else should take that baton. But it’s not because I didn’t like it. I loved it.
WP: But it was hard on you and your family. You were attacked on television all across the country.
Romney: But it was better on us than hard. My family is richer — emotionally and spiritually — by virtue of the campaign. Can you imagine the experience that my kids have now had having being part of a presidential campaign? It’s extraordinary — and myself, as well. Knowing what I know, would I do it again? Going back the clock, “You’re gonna lose but you have to get in anyway?” Yeah, absolutely. It’s a great experience. If you get a chance to run for president, do it.
WP: Would you run a third time?
Romney: Absolutely not. This is a time for somebody else to carry the torch because I think they stand a better chance of winning. This is about the country, this is not about me, so I think Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, of course, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker — it’s a long list of people who are vying for the job, and let them have the experience going through the process and let’s choose one who could win.
WP: Are any of your advisers and supporters encouraging you to do this again?
Romney: Not my advisers, no; I think they know where I am. But now and then you have donors and friends who say, “Oh, you should run again.” I say, “Thanks so much, appreciate your support.”
WP: Are you going to be campaigning this year for Republicans in the 2014 elections?
Romney: I have already and will continue to do that. I try and avoid races where there’s a primary, and there will be a few exceptions — my guess is where there’s not a very credible primary — but I’m campaigning for people who I think could win and who I think could take the country in the right direction, whether it’s governor’s races. I’ve got trips scheduled in different parts of the country to help candidates. Some places I’ll be more helpful than others. I went to Virginia to help Ken Cuccinelli, but I did it with a fundraiser — instead of trying to muddy the electoral process there, let’s just help him in the best way I can.
WP: At the end of the film we see you on the plane on Election Day. You see the big crowd in Pittsburgh. It looked like you were working on what would have been your victory speech and you read one of the lines to Bob White and Ron Kaufman. Did you feel at all misled by your numbers, by the crowds, by what you were experiencing in the bubble and not realizing what was happening?
Romney: I’m a pretty analytical guy, all right? I looked at polls and I saw that the president was leading in a number and I was leading in a few. He was leading in more than I was leading in. Sitting down with my pollster, I said, “Okay, let’s look, why is he leading in some and me in others?” He said it all comes down to what the pollster believes the turnout will be of each voter cohort. Our team believed that the fact that I was leading in Ohio among independent voters was a very good sign and that I should probably win if I were able to continue that lead, and I had a lead with independent voters, and I actually won among independent voters. But there was a much larger turnout of the African American population than we had predicted. And smaller turnout in some of the rural communities of the majority population that we had predicted. So we came out upside-down.
We discussed, okay, if this group turns out more, then we lose. If that group turns out more, then we win. If we get more in the suburbs than in the cities, then we win. So I knew that it was uncertain. I believed in my heart we would win. I was buoyed by the enthusiasm and the passion of people who supported our effort. In New Hampshire, for instance, the extraordinary rally we had with Kid Rock — they cheered and cheered and cheered. It’s like, okay, this is really wonderful. But that didn’t say to me, “Oh, okay, I’ve won.” I’m a bright enough guy to know that the other guy has rallies that cheer him, as well. But the support that I was getting and the degree of voter enthusiasm for our campaign was very, very encouraging.
WP: Since the election, we’ve seen President Obama have a lot of troubles — Obamacare for one, but there have been a number of other issues in the last year. Do you think if the election were held now the outcome would be different?
Romney: I can’t even imagine that scenario. The election’s not being held now and I don’t try and rethink that. I can tell you, Obamacare, I have been stunned by the pratfalls associated with its implementation. I simply can’t understand how a president that had such an effective technology campaign and has such support among the technology community members could have put in place the implementation of Obamacare as ineffectively as he did. I find it stunning. I also believe, and was stunned, that the president did not honor his promise that you could keep your insurance if you liked it. He could have provided an exception in that case, but did not. He was faced with it and turned it down. I was stunned by those things. But, you know, I hope he’s able to get back on track.
WP: It seems like someone like you, with your management consulting experience, would know a thing or two about how to run that process. Did you ever think about offering your advice or calling him up and raising your hand?
Romney: The president has plenty of advisers, and when it comes to implementation of a technology platform, he’s got access to better people than I have. If I had been president, I would’ve been calling in those very individuals he called in and said, “Okay, what do we have to do?” I’ve watched technology implementation in other settings and it is a very laborious, detailed, expensive process, and that just wasn’t being carried out. I just don’t understand why. I remember Mike Leavitt [former secretary of health and human services] saying that, when they implemented Medicare Part D, that it was a huge process and there were still some snafus. And he remarked prior to the implementation of Obamacare that, “I’m not seeing that level of engagement in Washington. I don’t understand how they expect to implement this without bringing in more resources.” And he was absolutely right.
WP: What about the Republican Party as it is now? They’ve been through a year now of various efforts to try to regroup and rebuild and reposition for 2016 and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is leading the way on that. Are they on the right track?
Romney: I think Reince is doing the right things. He’s trying to make sure that the nomination process selects a candidate that can heal the country and win, so he doesn’t want there to be ways to game the system that would nominate someone who couldn’t win or a process which so burdens our nominee that he can’t afford to have a message after he becomes the nominee that’s heard by the American people and so forth. So his efforts to try to limit the number of debates, that’s a good idea. The emphasis on primaries for selecting delegates as opposed to caucuses and conventions, very important. Moving the convention date earlier so that you can get general election money, very good idea. He’s doing the things that I think have to be done, and he’s heard from a commission and from me and a lot of our donors who’ve said many of the same things. Because we don’t have a president in our party, we don’t have a president who could discipline various factions of the party. That’s just the nature of not having an incumbent president. So we’ve got different factions in the party; they’ll each have a chance to be heard, and may the best man or woman win.
WP: One of the potential candidates seen as a strong contender is Chris Christie, who was a supporter of yours. Do you have thoughts on the bridge controversy that’s been playing out there? Do you think it’s indicative at all of hardball politics in that state and in his administration?
Romney: I think Chris has handled this in a very effective way. A member of his administration did something that he was unaware of and that he found reprehensible. He faced the American people for two hours, took their questions. He dismissed people who were responsible. He took personal responsibility. That’s what a leader does. I think he’s handled this kind of setting in a way very different than people who are not leaders, and I think the American people are pining for leaders who will take responsibility, who will answer questions openly, who will make sure that there’s accountability for the individuals who’ve done something wrong and speak in a blunt, straightforward manner. I think Chris is not hurt by the controversy. I think as time goes on he’ll be seen as a strong leader.
WP: Have you talked with Christie at all about it?
Romney: We’ve e-mailed. … I said effectively the same thing, which is he must be frightening a lot of people because they’re giving it a lot of attention. But I think Chris is a very strong potential nominee. I would put in that category Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker. I’m sure there are others — John Kasich. There are a number of Republican leaders who I think could be very strong, but Chris is certainly one of them. He’s demonstrated a capability of leadership and electability which is impressive.
WP: One thing that’s a little bit puzzling about the bridge situation is just that he didn’t know about the traffic for those four days as it was piling up. You were a governor. If a bridge or tunnel in your state had that kind of a traffic jam for so many days, would you know about it? Would you demand answers from your subordinates? Would you want to get to the bottom of it?
Romney: I just don’t know the circumstances there and how unusual it was and whether people were talking about it on the news and so forth. I just don’t know. I know that you try and do everything you can to help the people of your state, and I’m sure he does that. I think he has demonstrated an awareness of the needs of the people of New Jersey in the way he’s dealt with the hurricane, which I think leads no doubt in the minds of people that, when he is aware of a concern, he is not afraid to jump in the middle of it and fix it.
WP: A question about Utah, since you’re a favorite son here and you’re now a home owner here. Two homes …
Romney: One and a half. The one in Park City is owned 50-50. It’s shared by another individual. He gets two weeks, I get two weeks, he gets two weeks, I get two weeks.
WP: Is your La Jolla beach house under construction?
Romney: Not yet. We’ll see if it ever is.
WP: In Utah, on this same-sex marriage issue, a federal judge ruled last month to overturn the ban and make marriages legal. I’m wondering if you agree with that decision, or do you think same-sex marriages should not be legal in this state?
Romney: I have the same position that I’ve had when I was governor and when I ran as president. I believe marriage should be between one man and one woman. We’ll see how the courts deal with this, but that’s the position I have and will continue to have.