A Look at Mitt, the Netflix Documentary

This is why you don’t get good people running for president!

Sitting at the foot of his bed in a cookie-cutter Radisson hotel room, Josh Romney sheds his glossy campaign persona and offers a rare glimpse into a pedal-to-the-metal presidential campaign. “[Mitt Romney’s] experience is turning things around, which we need in this country,” says Josh, offering the camera an earnest glance. “This is the guy for the moment, and we’re just getting beat up constantly.”

Josh’s emphasis on his father’s practical qualifications for the presidency, rather than ideological fervor, provides a rare look at Romney’s true reasons for twice running for president. Typically, candidates enter presidential races in order to promote specific policies they believe will improve the lives of Americans. Romney, however, paid little mind to specific policies. Instead, he saw his unique experience in business and crisis management as his ticket to the White House.

Josh’s dialogue — and the implicit takeaway — is just one small segment at the 17-minute mark of Mitt, a documentary which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 17, 2014, and was released a week later by Netflix. Mitt captures six years of Romney’s life, from his 2006 decision to run for president, to his 2008 campaign against John McCain, to his 2012 general election defeat at the hands of Barack Obama. The final 92-minute film was culled from thousands of hours of raw, behind-the-scenes footage.

Romney desperately tried, and failed, to shake the flip-flopper perception during his six-year campaign marathon. Yet as Mitt plainly shows, Romney appeared to be a political chameleon for one simple reason: he really was not much concerned with policy-making. He believed that he should be president because he was a very capable administrator. He thought that if President Romney faced a difficult situation as head of state, his business expertise and managerial acumen would lead him to chart the best possible course of action for America. Romney’s business and administrative ability, rather than policy objectives, was his impetus for running for president.

After all, it was great success as CEO of Bain Capital, emergency manager of the 2002 Olympics, and Governor of Massachusetts that launched Romney into his first campaign for president in early 2007. Since he was challenging John McCain, the field’s moderate front-runner,  Romney had to appeal to the conservative base of the Republican Party. This seemingly pragmatic tactic proved problematic for Romney, and it is the most likely origin of his flip-flopping. During his time in the Governor’s Mansion, Romney had established himself as a political moderate who had little interest in enacting a socially conservative agenda. A presidential run quickly changed that.

“Romney approached politics as a business problem,” Walter Shapiro, a Yale political scientist and journalist who has covered nine presidential elections, told The Politic. “In the corporate world, slightly changing your investment pitch or advertising strategy can be seen as good business, but if you do that in politics, that’s a flip-flop.” Realizing he needed to court more primary voters, Romney acted like an entrepreneur trying to increase demand for his product. Thus, he moved to the right on many issues, including stem cell research, birth control, and gun control. As a result of Romney’s shifts, his opponents denounced him as a political opportunist, while the Republican base never really bought his conservative turn. Under these inhospitable conditions, Romney bowed out of the race in early 2008.

Considering the toll that election had on Romney and his family, Romney’s determination to run for president again in 2012 puzzled many political talking heads. By offering a window into Romney’s conversations with his close advisers at the end of his 2008 bid, Mitt provides an answer. First, after the spirited nomination contest of 2008, Romney saw himself as the GOP’s next obvious standard-bearer — a powerful argument in Republican politics. Second, he figured that the country would be struggling in 2012, and Americans would be looking for someone with business experience to steer the economy in the right direction.

This rationale led Romney to decide, rather idiosyncratically, that he would not need a concrete political credo to run. Most previous presidents, however, have entered the White House with a well-defined set of policy goals. For example, George W. Bush strode into office with his “compassionate conservative” doctrine, complete with concrete proposals for tax law, entitlements, and immigration. In contrast, Romney was an expert manager. He believed that his ability to weigh the many factors involved in a certain situation was more important than a clumsy and inflexible ideology. Romney hoped that by 2012, the country would realize that he was a proficient decision-maker who would powerfully lead the executive branch.

Said Yale political science professor Eitan Hersh, “The sympathetic view of Romney is that he doesn’t care much about policies and prefers administration. Romney was willing to be flexible on his political positions for different electorates because his passion was strong leadership rather than policy.”

Romney’s single-minded focus on administration does not mean that he lacked political beliefs. In fact, this focus made his convictions more evident in the slightly esoteric realm of economics rather than in more-accessible debates over social issues. Mitt clearly shows Romney’s worries about the harsh climate for small businesses under Obama. What’s more, Romney expressed to his family his intense fears about the future of the United States: “I believe we are following the same path of every great nation, which is greater government, tax the rich people, promise more stuff to everybody, and borrow until you go over a cliff.” Romney truly wanted to lead the country away from Obama’s economic policies, which he thought were stifling the growth of American companies. He found issues unrelated to the economy of little importance.

Though he was an astute businessman running to calm the weakened American markets, Romney still failed to appeal to a majority of Americans. It was thus no shocker when the documentary revealed Romney’s 2012 electoral loss.

We will never know whether Romney would have been able to successfully shepherd the country through a slow economic recovery, nor if modern administrator-in-chiefs can serve as effective presidents. As Romney’s loss proves, candidates without exciting policies face large obstacles to becoming president. Voters want to rally behind a candidate’s specific actions upon assuming the Oval Office, yet Romney failed to excite Americans about his plans for the country. And in an electoral process that favors showmanship over résumés, it will be a long time before a technocrat like Romney assumes the mantle of the American presidency.

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