Ten months after Mitt Romney shuffled off the national stage in defeat — consigned, many predicted, to a fate of instant irrelevance and permanent obscurity — Republicans are suddenly celebrating the presidential also-ran as a political prophet.
From his widely mocked warnings about a hostile Russia to his adamant opposition to the increasingly unpopular implementation of Obamacare, the ex-candidate’s canon of campaign rhetoric now offers cause for vindication — and remorse — to Romney’s friends, supporters, and former advisers.
“I think about the campaign every single day, and what a shame it is who we have in the White House,” said Spencer Zwick, who worked as Romney’s finance director and is a close friend to his family. “I look at things happening and I say, you know what? Mitt was actually right when he talked about Russia, and he was actually right when he talked about how hard it was going to be to implement Obamacare, and he was actually right when he talked about the economy. I think there are a lot of everyday Americans who are now feeling the effects of what [Romney] said was going to happen, unfortunately.”
Of course, there is a long tradition in American politics of dwelling on counterfactuals and re-litigating past campaigns after your candidate loses. Democrats have argued through the years that America would have avoided two costly Middle East wars, solved climate change, and steered clear of the housing crisis if only the Supreme Court hadn’t robbed Al Gore of his rightful victory in 2000. But a series of White House controversies and international crises this year — including a Syrian civil war that is threatening to pull the American military into the mix — has caused Romney’s fans to erupt into a chorus of told-you-so’s at record pace.
In the most actively cited example of the Republican nominee’s foresight, Romneyites point to the candidate’s hardline rhetoric last year against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his administration. During the campaign, Romney frequently criticized Obama for foolishly attempting to make common cause with the Kremlin, and repeatedly referred to Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe.”
Many observers found this fixation strange, and Democrats tried to turn it into a punchline. A New York Times editorial in March of last year said Romney’s assertions regarding Russia represented either “a shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics.” And in an October debate, Obama sarcastically mocked his opponent’s Russia rhetoric. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” the president quipped at the time.
That line still chafes Robert O’Brien, a Los Angeles lawyer and friend of Romney’s who served as a foreign policy adviser.
“Everyone thought, Oh my goodness that is so clever and Mitt’s caught in the Cold War and doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” O’Brien said. “Well guess what. With all of these foreign policy initiatives — Syria, Iran, [Edward] Snowden — who’s out there causing problems for America? It’s Putin and the Russians.”
Indeed, earlier this summer, Moscow defiantly refused to extradite National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to the United States, prompting Obama to cancel a meeting he had scheduled with Putin during the Group of 20 summit. Russia has blocked United Nations action against Syria. And on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told lawmakers that Russia was one of the countries supplying Syria with chemical weapons.
To Romney’s fans, these episodes illustrate just how unfairly their candidate was punished during the election for speaking truths the rest of the country would eventually come around to.
“The governor tried to enunciate how to deal with these very hard, tough issues, and we were met with slogans,” O’Brian lamented. “And now the real world is exposing the slogans as being totally trite.”
Admirers point to other examples of Romney’s unrewarded wisdom, as well.
During a foreign policy debate in October, the candidate briefly expressed concern over Islamic extremists taking control of northern Mali — an obscure reference that was mocked on Twitter at the time, including by liberal comedian Bill Maher. Three months later, France sent troops into the country at the behest of the Malian president, bringing the conflict to front pages around the world.
On the domestic front, Obamacare — which Romney spent more time railing against on the stump than perhaps any other progressive policy — is less popular than ever, while the federal government struggles to get the massive, complicated law implemented. (One poll in July found for the first time that a plurality of Americans now support the law’s repeal.)
And while the unemployment rate has, in the first year of Obama’s second term, gradually fallen to post-crisis lows, the still-ailing U.S. economy, which served as the centerpiece for Romney’s unsuccessful case against Obama’s reelection, was given a potent symbol earlier this summer when Detroit became the largest American city ever to declare bankruptcy.
The Motor City became a symbolic battleground during the election, with Romney proudly touting his father’s ties to the auto industry, and the Obama campaign relentlessly attacking the Republican for a Times op-ed he had written years earlier headlined “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
“The president took the title of that op-ed, which of course was written by editors of the New York Times, and used it to say Gov. Romney was being insensitive about his own home city,” complained former campaign spokesman Ryan Williams. Romney’s article argued that beleaguered automakers should consider going through a managed bankruptcy instead of taking a bailout but, Williams said, “the president’s campaign intentionally tried to blur the lines. It worked. And several months later, the city is going bankrupt because of liberal democratic officeholders.”
Referring to the bankruptcy, Putin’s posturing, and the Mali conflict, Williams added, “Obviously, it would have been nice if any of these incidents would have occurred during the campaign to vindicate Romney. You would never want to see the bankruptcy of a major U.S. city, or the president embarrass himself on the world stage like he has, but Gov. Romney did discuss these potential outcomes.”
Romneyites are processing these feelings of vindication in different ways. The campaign’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, said he has been disappointed to see their central message — that Obama would be unable to restore America’s strength — turned out to be so accurate: “If there is a part of the world in which America is stronger, it’s hard to find. What’s the president doing? Attacking a talk radio host. He has criticized Rush Limbaugh with more conviction than the leaders of Iran… We can only hope it improves. ”
And Jennifer Rubin, the conservative Washington Post blogger who became Romney’s most outspoken advocate in the press, accused members of the news media of failing to take the Republican’s arguments seriously, while allowing the incumbent skate through the race untouched.
“As for the media, they are the least self-reflective people I know,” Rubin said. “The left-leaning media has carried the president’s water faithfully, eschewing the least bit of critical analysis. Now they don’t like the result?”
For Zwick, perhaps the closest thing to a true Romney loyalist on the campaign last year, the belief that his candidate turned out to be right offers little comfort.
“It’s frustrating because there’s no way to correct it,” Zwick said. “We don’t do what they do in the U.K. and lead the opposition party when you lose. When you lose there is no way to sort of be vindicated. There’s no way to say, ‘OK, well, I didn’t win the presidency but I’m going to continue to fight.’ There’s no fighting. There’s no platform to do that. Fifty million Americans voted for the guy and yet it’s all for nothing.”
“I wish he’d run again,” Zwick added. “He’s not going to. But if he did, I’d be right there.”
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