The power of losing
Put another way, it’s hell to be a front-runner.
The imperative to sustain momentum and never stumble isn’t only crazy-making, it’s almost always mistake-guaranteeing. Where can you go but down? Conversely, where can long shots and runners-up go but up? And why not be yourself in the meantime?
Thus, Santorum, who no one ever expected to do so well, has been more comfortable in his skin, not to mention his sweater vest, than anyone else on the stage. It helps that Santorum really is completely at one with his faith and his principles. Agree with him or not on the issues, he conveys sincerity and that ever-elusive political prod to applause, authenticity.
It is also true, however, that when the presidential nomination isn’t likely to be yours, you are unburdened by expectations. You don’t have to force the giddy optimism of a Reagan morning in America or the shining city on a hill, or whatever it was—a good horse?—and can simply be an ordinary human being. (By the way, why can’t America be a great country without being shiny or morning-ish? What’s wrong with a nice matte finish around noonish?)
Both Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul also have enjoyed the freedom of loser-ness. Neither is expected to become the Republican nominee, though both have worthy things to say, notwithstanding the occasional flight to the moon on gossamer wings or, in Paul’s case, the desire to lead a government that, should he win, would no longer be capable of actually operating as one.
These two, though their styles differ, have breezed through debates, caucuses and primaries like a couple of guys pulling an all-nighter in the dorm—full of ideas and coffee, plotting new countries for old men. Not so much Romney, who, poor guy, is listening so hard to coaches and advisers, he must be calling home to ask his wife: “Ann, am I Mitt?”
“I’m not sure, honey. Your voice sounds familiar, but I don’t recognize you on TV.”
For good reason. Romney is dogged by narratives that aren’t really his. His party’s base wants him fighting mad, which is not in his repertoire. Adding to his miseries, he seems to have fallen victim to a phonic tic, saying inappropriate things—telling jobless folks that he’s unemployed or, recently, “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” which he doesn’t mean. Everybody is concerned about the very poor! Everybody.
Suddenly, something shifts in the political universe and Santorum sweeps three states in a night. Granted, Romney did not spend as much time in those states and the contests guarantee no delegates, but still, the victor gets to write the story. Santorum beams that he will be the Republican nominee and, indeed, he has a loyal fan base that Romney will have to win over.
Voila, Romney gives the best speech of his candidacy. He talks about his father and what this country’s promise meant to him, how he sold paint on his honeymoon to pay for the trip, and later became the head of an auto company. The speech was touching and sweet and true.
Where have you been, Mitt Romney?
We’ve seen it again and again in concession and farewell speeches. Al Gore was never more splendid than when he conceded to George W. Bush in 2000. The pain and humility of that moment were palpable, and even Gore’s critics couldn’t help but be struck by the power of his grace. Where had that man been?
Ditto John Kerry. And, now, ditto Romney. The moral of the story isn’t that one must lose to win, but that one try to harness the spoils of loss for the road to victory. Those spoils are humility, grace and the freedom to be one’s true self.
In real life, Romney cares about the very poor and spent his missionary years trying to help the less fortunate. To those who know him, he is kind, generous and humble. If Romney could summon the man he is in his quiet time, unhaunted by the cliches of political wizardry, Americans might find that they like him after all.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her email address is email@example.com.