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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

From the Magazine: The Mitt Romney Who Might Have Been

Collage by Chrissie Abbott.

It was almost exactly four years ago that watched up close as John McCain agonized over how he should respond to America's spiraling financial crisis. What McCain ultimately chose to do, six weeks before the election, was to suspend his campaign and return to Washington to meet with President Bush and Congressional leaders. But that strategic gamble - which now takes its place in the annals of political misfires - came as a result of a somber meeting earlier that day with his economic team at a Hilton hotel in Midtown Manhattan. The attendees included several of the candidate's big donors in the finance industry, a few political advisers and Romney.

“It was an unrelentingly bleak discussion, with the financial guys talking about the world as we know it ending,” recalls Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was McCain's senior economic adviser at the time. Another McCain senior staff member, who, like many people I spoke with, would speak only under the condition of anonymity, told me: “At the time, there wasn't a person on the political team who understood what a credit-default swap was or toxic mortgages or subprime bundling. At one point I asked, ‘What do you mean by economic collapse?' And one of them answered, ‘It means you won't be able to get a 20-dollar bill out of an A.T.M.' Right after the meeting I called my wife and said, ‘Get $30,000 in cash out of the bank today.' It was terrifying and surreal.”

Romney had been an informal adviser, fund-raiser and campaign surrogate for McCain since dropping out of the G.O.P. race seven months earlier. Well before the meltdown of the markets that summer, the former Massachusetts governor and Bain Capital C.E.O. had emphasized his vast experience in the private sector. As he told one campaign audience in Sarasota, Fla., in January 2008: “I will not need briefings on how the economy works. I know how it works. I've been there.”

That day in the Hilton conference room, however, Romney did not distinguish himself as McCain struggled to decide what course he should recommend in Washington. Holtz-Eakin recalls “nothing specifically” that Romney had to offer. The other McCain senior staff member is more emphatic: “The reality is he didn't take command. He wasn't a Marshall-type figure who conveyed an understanding of both business and politics. But the truth is, no one else had any clue what to do, either.” Then he added, “There wasn't a single person in the room, including Romney, who had any specific policy recommendation.”

Four years later, Mitt Romney's unsteady campaign performance has yet to convince voters that he is a “Marshall-type figure” who can, in his own distinct way, fill the office of the presidency. Only recently has Romney begun to detail the policies he would pursue if elected, as if they were hatched from a few late-night strategy sessions after a string of bad news days rather than from the candidate's core philosophy. The fact that Romney is in charge of his own widely criticized campaign doesn't appear to be especially reassuring to the electorate - and even so, his campaign tactics reveal only what he would do in order to win, not what he'll do once he has won.

Romney faces an incumbent with his own leadership issues, though Obama has the benefit of surrogates who are deft at ascribing fittingly presidential characteristics to him. One morning in June, I sat in the Chicago mayor's office of Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, watching as he emptied a grab bag of leadership adjectives: “competitive,” “disciplined,” “resolute.” Emanuel then bolted out of his chair, saying, “This'll give you a sense of his mind.” He led me into a hallway where the walls were festooned with images from the Oval Office. Pointing, the mayor said: “This is literally his first day as president, 9:30 in the morning. There's nothing on his desk, obviously - first day. This,” he then gestured to another framed photograph, “is me coming back after I'm mayor-elect, sometime in early 2011. You see anything on that desk?”