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The Tragedy of Mitt Romney

11/20/2012 08:30 am ET | Updated Jan 18, 2013

Oh, what might have been..... Consider what Mitt Romney might have been---as candidate, as president.....

While I am very pleased Barack Obama was re-elected, still---for the good of our troubled country---I wanted to see Mr. Romney acquit himself better.

At this historical moment, the grand American experiment balancing capitalism and democracy is wildly out of balance. Income inequality is as severe as it was during the Great Depression. Wall Street's "too big to fail" institutions are even bigger than they were before the '08 crash, yet they remain unchastened in their risk-taking and resist regulation, thus threatening Main Street with more damage and more loss.

Since these problems---income inequality and unregulated risk-taking, among others---are essentially ethical-moral in nature, then it follows that the ideal person to resolve them and restore balance to the system would be that unique individual who not only knows intimately the world of business and finance and has had experience in governing as well, but---crucially---also brings a moral compass with him into the arena.

In other words, someone who's met a payroll, knows how to work the levers of power, and can speak to the rightness and wrongness of things. With America at a hinge moment in its history, when decline is a very real possibility, this kind of leader could be more than president; he or she could, by rebalancing our capitalist democracy and reversing our decline, be a savior.

Mitt Romney, on paper and in prospect, had those qualities: wildly fabulous success as a private-equity financier (how often did we hear he's worth $250 million?), a successful term as governor of Massachusetts, and, by his own repeated statement, commitment to God as a man of faith, thus presumably making him an adherent to a moral code. Such combination of experience and character may be why the Obama campaign feared most the prospect of Mr. Romney as the GOP nominee.

Imagine: What if that Romney had addressed, say, the matter of income inequality and said, forthrightly and acknowledging the presence of class, "It's simply not right that my class gets to enjoy all the fruits of this great system of ours, while people not so fortunate suffer in poverty, untreated illness, the terrible anxiety of not knowing what the next day will bring. I grieve over that, it's simply not right. And if you elect me, I'll endeavor to redress that balance."

Or what if that Romney had addressed the titans of Wall Street, speaking to them as their peer, and said: "As stewards of America's great financial system, we must take responsibility for the recent crash, not continue to duck it. For in campaigning I have met the good souls of Main Street and, I tell you, it is simply wrong that they be injured further by forces well within our control. We must come to see our mission as one that maximizes returns not just to our companies, but to this great country. Because our system works best when all parts---Wall Street and Main Street---are in balance. And we must recognize how our financial actions impact the world, too."

I know, I know, I am deep in Fantasyland here. And yet, and yet: Such recognitions, such catharses, are precisely what our hurting country needs---desperately.

I also fantasize Romney speaking to a group of the super-rich (and being secretly taped), saying, "You know, about our income levels and the economic imbalance, I've been thinking---How much is enough?" Again, it's blatant fantasy, but it's also precisely the question, the ultimate question, that the 1% needs to ask itself if we are to rebalance.

As we all know, this ideal Romney fell far short in reality. Mr. Romney revealed himself, increasingly over time, as a man more of commerce than "of the people," with his hand on the cash register, not our pulse. Despite vaunted business smarts, he displayed little understanding of how the turbo-capitalism he profits from injures the polity, the souls of Main Street; he never painted a picture of capitalism-with-a-human-face, nor did he point the way there. So blinded, he drew precisely the wrong conclusions about our system (for one, that those not rich "resent" those who are).

Especially in the latter phases of his campaign, when we might have seen glints of character refined by the fierce struggle for the White House, we saw instead the astonishing petulance of the 47% remark---that 47% of the American public are "dependents" who don't take responsibility for their lives, thus he can't worry about them. In the week before the election, desperate to make up for his colossally bad recommendation to let the American auto industry go under, he misrepresented---no, he flat out lied---to Ohio auto workers that Chrysler was taking its Jeep production to China, and he continued with the lie even when Chrysler publicly corrected him. (What's Mormon for chutzpah?) And now, we have Mr. Romney's post-election debrief: that Mr. Obama won because of "gifts" he bestows on certain populations, not mentioning the many gifts already going to the rich and the corporations in the form of tax cuts, tax breaks, subsidies, etc.

How sad: When magnanimity was required, Mr. Romney showed himself mean, even amoral. How does a "man of faith," again self-professed, justify such behavior?

Of course stepping up to the moral plane, doing right by the matters described above (income inequality, unregulated risk-taking), would have required even more flip-flopping from Mr. Romney. But he was setting a record anyway, showing up at each presidential debate with a different persona spouting different policy positions. Besides, as Republican strategist Mike Murphy says, flip-flopping is O.K. if the candidate is flipping toward the true, the right, and the beautiful.

Also consider: How Mr. Obama would have had to step up his game if Mr. Romney had taken these and other moral stands. Mr. Obama could not have run the negative campaign he did, redefining Mr. Romney's business career downward. Certainly Mr. Obama could hold his own in a moral argument. Had both of them joined that argument, about the rightness and wrongness of things, the country would have benefited immeasurably. (In his own effort at rebalancing, Mr. Obama has announced that his second-term mandate will be fighting for the middle class.)

In life, few of us are afforded the scope of high action, or are driven by ambition to seek the pinnacle of American life, the White House. Mitt Romney came within sight of it, after years of campaigning, and he had the ambition. He also had the ideal c.v. to be the Great Rebalancer of America's capitalist democracy, which rebalancing is needed to "go forward."

But Mr. Romney bobbled his historical moment, to rebalance as well as to lead---because he left his moral compass behind. Thus his is a tragedy of personal failing, not polling or ground game. And compounding the tragedy (to recur to Republican terminology), he "built that" by abandoning his avowed best self: his moral core.

In years to come, he'll ponder the truth of American writer John Greenleaf Whittier: "For all sad words of tongue and pen, / The saddest are these, 'It might have been.'"

But it's a tragedy for the country only if we don't learn from Mr. Romney's failure. For it remains the case that America still needs a president who's also the Great Rebalancer. Given that we're a country not enamored of tragedy, and given the evidence of our national decline, to seek the White House in order both to lead and rebalance---now, that's a proper ambition.

For Pres. Obama's potential on this point, see here.

Carla Seaquist is author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is author of the just-published volume, "Two Plays of Life and Death," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."

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