Contrary to early rumors, 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s address to the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference did not offer a post-mortem of his campaign. “Of course, I left the race disappointed that we didn’t win,” Romney said. “But I also left honored and humbled to have represented values we believe in and to speak for so many good and decent people. We’ve lost races before, and in the past, those setbacks prepared us for larger victories. It is up to us to make sure that we learn from my mistakes, and from our mistakes, so that we can win the victories those people and this nation depend upon.”
But he didn’t elaborate on those mistakes, and did not mention the campaign again, except to wistfully remark, “I am sorry that I will not be your president… but I will be your co-worker and I will stand shoulder to shoulder with you. In the end, we will win just as we have won before, and for the same reason: because our cause is right… and just.”
Instead, Romney used a great deal of his speech to relate inspiring encounters he had with ordinary Americans throughout his campaign. Small businesspeople who didn’t give up, innovators who found new ways to succeed, managers who became investors to save a flagging enterprise… “I met heroes in our armed forces, men and women who re-signed with the National Guard after multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan, knowing that in all probability, they would be going back again,” Romney said. “I met heroes in the homes of the nation: single moms who are working two jobs so that their kids will have clothes like those that the other kids wear, dads who almost forget what a weekend is, because of all the jobs they’ve taken on to keep the house.”
Romney came to deliver words of respect and love to the nation that couldn’t quite see its way clear to elect him President. “We are a patriotic people,” he testified. “The heart of America is good. Our land is blessed by the hand of God. May we as a people always be worthy of His grace, and His protection.”
This brand of testimonial speech – chock-full of anecdotes about everyday heroes in the American working class, business sector, and military – is President Obama’s stock-in-trade. It’s also the sort of thing Senator Marco Rubio does exceptionally well. Perhaps this speech was Romney’s way of passing along a lesson learned from his last run for office: the importance of connecting with the American people on this “I’ve been coast-to-coast and met you” level. His respect, admiration, and optimism seemed humble and sincere.
Romney did have a few words of political strategy to offer, in particular the leadership role of Republican governors. “Yes, they are winning elections,” said Romney, “but more importantly, they are solving problems. Big problems. Important problems. Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia secured a constitutional amendment to expand charter schools. Governor Rick Snyder signed Right to Work legislation… in Michigan! Several secured tort reform. Many turned huge deficits into surpluses. Republican governors reached across the aisle, offered innovative solutions and have been willing to take the heat to make tough decisions.”
“We need the ideas and leadership of each of these governors,” Romney encouraged. “We particularly need to hear from the Governors of the blue and purple states, like Bob McDonnell, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Susanna Martinez, Chris Christie, and Brian Sandoval because their states are among those we must win to take the Senate and the White House.”
It’s significant that he included New Jersey governor Chris Christie on that list. Christie’s name is not held in universally high regard among conservatives at the moment; he wasn’t invited to address CPAC this year, and some wondered if Romney might be cross that Christie, who once served as a chief surrogate of the Romney campaign, heartily embraced Barack Obama in the crucial final days of the election. If Romney does have such lingering bad feelings, he did not allow them to interfere with his recommendation that Republicans study Christie’s methods of electoral success in a blue state.
Romney aired his concerns that American military and economic decline will jeopardize our leadership position in the world: “American leadership depends on a military so strong, so superior, that no one would think to engage it. Our military strength depends on an economy so strong that it can support such a military. And our economy depends on a people so strong, so educated, so resolute, so hard working, so inventive, and so devoted to their children’s future, that other nations look at us with respect and admiration. That is the America we grew up in, and it is the America our children deserve.”
He stressed the importance of economic strength to both military and humanitarian endeavors, describing the darker powers of the world as a challenge we must be forever prepared to face down. “Today, history and duty summon us again. The country is imperiled by mounting debt, by failing institutions, by families stressed beyond their limits, by schools that fail to make the grade, and by public servants who are more intent on scoring political points than on national renewal.”
Whatever his failings as a candidate, Mitt Romney remains exceptionally skilled at addressing the kind of fiscal and managerial problems that Barack Obama is either uninterested in addressing, or incapable of resolving. And Romney is a profoundly decent man who understands the importance of strength to those who would render service to the unfortunate, or defend the oppressed. He has said that he wants to continue having a leadership role in our national conversation. Perhaps this was just the right speech to give, to the audience he somewhat clumsily told about his “severe conservatism” last year. It turns out he’s not such a severe fellow after all. His otherwise admirable resume included one great organizational and managerial failure, his presidential campaign, which can be left to other analysts for dissection and study.