Amid the triumphant acclamation and the reluctant resignation of the two presidential candidates’ early morning speeches was the hint that politics is about to take a strange turn. Mitt Romney’s concession address was suitably gracious and, above dissenting heckles from his disappointed party workers, he included this veiled job application: “Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work, and we citizens also have to rise to the occasion.”
Within half an hour President Barack Obama responded in kind. “I just spoke with Governor Romney and I congratulated him and Paul Ryan on a hard-fought campaign,” he said. “In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.”
What do the two men have in mind? The role of defeated presidential candidate is a hard one to endure. America does not like losers, and those who fail to win the world’s most important office are given short shrift. Often they become bywords for has-beens and no-hopers, tacitly blamed for letting their ambitions run ahead of reality. George McGovern was a courageous man, a bomber pilot in World War Two who knew war from the inside and could not bear to see America’s young men sacrificed in a dubious cause. His reward after losing the 1972 race was ignominy and derision. The same was true of another war hero and failed presidential candidate, Bob Dole, in 1996, who became a spokesman for Viagra.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis’s failure to become president became the butt of gags in late-night comedians’ monologues. Al Gore, who won the popular vote, won Florida if the votes had been counted, and was only kept out of the White House in 2000 by an extraordinary decision of the Supreme Court that to this day cannot be read by the American people they claim to serve, fared even worse. After growing a beard, shedding his wife, Tipper, and putting on 100 pounds, he has floundered around, trying to find a role that befits a two-term vice president. Little wonder that Romney, as he takes off the motley, does not wish to join that sorry line of tragedians.
On the stump, Romney used to joke that he fully understands the unemployed because he has been unemployed for five years, since he stood down as the one-term governor of Massachusetts in 2007. More seriously, what does a man with a vast fortune, who doesn’t need to work, do after two failed runs at the presidency? Romney is 65 and in good shape. His religion and his upbringing suggest he should do something in the public good. But what? We have yet to discover what Obama said to Romney – and indeed to Paul Ryan – in the early hours of Nov. 7, but it is clear that there was something more than the usual niceties. There was none of the petulance on display in the snarling between Gore and George W. Bush that elicited the revealing reprimand from Gore, when he called to say he may have conceded too soon, “There’s no need to get snippy about it.” It seems from Obama’s victory speech that he reached out there and then to his old adversaries and in doing so set the tone for his second term.
What does Obama envision for Romney? Will the offer be extended to Ryan, too? No doubt there will be negotiations and plenty to disagree about. It is 150 years since Abraham Lincoln, in his famous “Team of Rivals,” welcomed a defeated candidate to serve in his administration. And they were all from the same party. An overseas ambassadorship is the traditional bone thrown to an opponent from the same party, but that is plainly not right for Romney, whose foreign policy instincts – the London Olympics could go terribly wrong; let’s bomb Iran before it bombs Israel; let’s declare China a currency manipulator on day one – could hardly be called diplomatic.
There are, however, jobs that desperately need doing, starting with finding a grand bargain with intransigent Republicans in the House that will prevent America from plunging down the fiscal cliff on Jan. 1. This is a big job for which Romney may be perfectly suited. One of the more plausible boasts in his campaign rhetoric was that he was a businessman who liked to do deals, that he could bring people together, that he could find a route through the mire. Would House Majority Leader John Boehner do a deal with Romney? Very likely, as he was prepared to bargain with Obama until the faction in his party who believe compromise is second to communism called him off. It is going to be a tall order to find enough House members willing to defy the Tea Partiers in their midst, but Moderate Mitt stands a better chance than most of persuading them that they owe it to their country to get the job done.
There is also Obama’s half-thought that he would like to establish the post of Secretary of Business to act as a “one-stop shop” instead of having “nine different departments that are dealing with things like getting loans to SBA or helping companies with exports.” When the notion was first mentioned, Romney made fun of the idea. “I don’t think adding a new chair in his cabinet will help add millions of jobs on Main Street,” he said. But in retrospect what he said next suggested that if anyone could do the job, he could. “We don’t need a Secretary of Business to understand business, we need a president who understands business, and I do!” Romney has strong views on bad business regulations but he is not against regulation per se. He might relish the idea of cleansing the rules that stand in the way of creating jobs.
The idea of Romney serving Obama in some capacity may never be realized. In the heat of election night, anything may seem possible that in the clear light of the morning after is plainly impossible. But Obama may be onto something. He still appears to believe that, notwithstanding the intransigency in the House in the last two years, a bipartisan approach is not only desirable but possible. That was the lesson of Hurricane Sandy and his rapprochement with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, which may prove to have been the turning point in the election.
In the body language on display at the end of the bitter and divisive television debates, the Obamas and the Romneys appeared to get on well. If the president can persuade the man who dearly wanted his job that there are other ways of serving the country that will provide him with a dignified extension to an honorable life of public service, Romney’s disappointment may be turned into an opportunity and the president’s second term might find a way through the bickering and blame-laying that typified his first.
Nicholas Wapshott is a Reuters columnist.