Mitt Romney as Adlai Stevenson

These comments by Mitt Romney’s son Tagg have gotten a lot of attention in the last couple of days:

In an interview with the Boston Globe examining what went wrong with the Romney campaign, his eldest son Tagg explains that his father had been a reluctant candidate from the start.

After failing to win the 2008 Republican nomination, Romney told his family he would not run again and had to be persuaded to enter the 2012 White House race by his wife Ann and son Tagg.

“He wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life. He had no desire… to run,” Tagg Romney said. “If he could have found someone else to take his place… he would have been ecstatic to step aside.”

By coincidence, I happened to be reading Joseph Epstein’s profile of Adlai Stevenson in his new book, Essays in Biography.  To the extent that these revelations can be taken at face value, the resemblance to Stevenson’s approach to power is remarkable.

Let’s start by acknowledging some differences between Stevenson and Romney.  While both were bright, Romney is probably more intellectual than Stevenson was (Stevenson played the part of the intellectual better, but the only book on his nightstand when he died was the social register), and Stevenson was probably a better governor.  He could have had the 2nd term in Illinois if he had wanted it instead of the presidential nomination, whereas it’s not clear at all that Romney would have had a 2nd term if he had run, rather than prepare for his 2008 run.

But both Romney and Stevenson appear to have had a healthy, philosopher-king style distrust of power, enough that it evidently made them each uneasy about having it themselves.  That’s not necessarily the reason they lost, but in Stevenson’s case, his public prevarications seem to have projected enough weakness that the public went the other way.  At least Romney had the sense to keep any doubts private.  And while he made the strategic error of not answering the personal attacks sooner, nobody really thinks that’s because he was trying to take a dive.

Stevenson, like Romney, also seems to have lacked a coherent governing philosophy.  In Epstein’s telling:

The style, it is said, is the message.  But in the case of Adlai Stevenson, the style seemed sometimes to persist in the absence of any clear message whatsoever.  He preached sanity; he preached reason; his very person seemed to exert a pull toward decency in public affairs.  Yet there is little evidence in any of his speeches or writing that he had a very precise idea of how American society was, or ought to be, organized. His understanding of the American political process was less than perfect, as can be seen from his predilection for the bipartisan approach to so many of the issues of his time.  One might almost say that Stevenson tried to set up shop as a modern, disinterested Pericles, but that he failed to realize that the America of the 1950s was a long way from the Golden Age of Athens.

Ultimately, Stevenson was better at not saying much; his rhetoric influenced both Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s sale of the Great Society; whomever the Republicans nominate in 2016 will likely owe little to Romney’s campaign talks.

I don’t want to overdraw the comparison.  Romney only ran in one general election; in some ways, his 2012 race contains elements both of Stevenson’s initial 1952 run and his rematch with Eisenhower in 1956, but in other ways, was completely different.  Having never been the party’s nominee in 2008, Romney couldn’t lead the party in-between elections.  The Republicans as a whole are coming to understand what Stevenson learned in 1952 – that a Presidential campaign is a terrible place to define issues and educate the public; individual personalities simply play too large a part in any single-office election.

But the biggest difference is how Romney will react after his loss, compared to how Stevenson reacted after his.  Stevenson desperately wanted the nomination in 1960, only couldn’t bring himself to say so until it was too late.  He wanted it, but he wanted to be asked, rather than having to ask.  Romney really does seem done with politics, except for the inevitable post mortems.



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