Ten days after at least some Republicans were surprised to see Mitt Romney lose the presidency, the candidate is gone without a trace.
There appears to be no Romney Republicanism to propagate. No Romney strategy to emulate. No Romney technology to ape. No generation shaped by his failed effort. And no Romney infrastructure to inherit, though he may still be asked to write and bundle quite a few checks. Romney's bewildering post-election explanations of his defeat — Obama, he said, had bought off Americans — drew almost universal condemnation from leaders of his party, but the comments were more excuse than cause; party figures from Ari Fleischer to Bobby Jindal appeared to be waiting to kick Romney to the side of the road. The candidate did them a favor when he complained that Democrats had simply bought off young people and minority voters, a churlish line that erased any lingering Republican affinity for him as, when all else failed, a good-hearted guy.
Romney is being erased with record speed from his party's books for three reasons. First, many Republicans backed him because they thought he had a good chance of winning; that appeal, obviously, is gone. Second, Romney had shallow roots, and few friends, in the national Republican Party. And those shallow roots have allowed Republicans to give him a new role: as a sort of bad partisan bank, freighted with all the generational positions and postures that they are looking to dump.
"Romney is now a toxic asset to unload," the historian Jack Bohrer remarked Saturday. "The only interesting thing left to his story is how they dispose of him."
The simplest reason for Romney's quick fade-out is that his central promise was that he could win. He delivered immense fund-raising prowess and ideological flexibility. He was never going to win partisan hearts like the two iconic, beloved losers of his father's generation, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern.
"This is ever the sad fate of the 'electability' candidate who fails to get elected," tweeted Red State editor Dan McLaughlin.
But other electability candidates have not been subject to the sort of forced amnesia already washing over Romney. John Kerry and John McCain both faced, perhaps, even more bitter recriminations on questions of tactics and strategy from inside their parties — but they returned to important Senate roles, positions of respect in Washington and in their parties, and Kerry may join the next Cabinet.
Other losers can draw, similarly, on deep wells of loyalty at high levels of the party structure. Bob Dole and Walter Mondale got crushed by the last two-term incumbents to serve two terms. They faded fast from the American public imagination, too. But they also retook their seats on the party dais. Mondale, a former vice president with deep ties to a key constituency, organized labor, became his party's Senate nominee after Paul Wellstone died in 2002. Dole, a beloved war hero and longtime party soldier, received the Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton in 1997, and was appointed by George W. Bush to chair a commission a decade later.
Romney was a party outsider who bought his way in. The campaigns he came up working for — his father's — operated in the essentially defunct moderate Republican tradition he abandoned, though a few of its stragglers staffed his headquarters in...Boston. Much of his inner circle consisted of people whose loyalty was to Romney, not to his party or even his platform; that was also true of his most enthusiastic volunteers.
Now Republicans don't even seem to want to pile on Romney. Karl Rove and the superPAC infrastructure have absorbed as much disgust from donors and activists as Romney's campaign, which found a message in the fall after a dismal summer. Recriminations, such as they are, have focused on the collapse of a glorified digital list called Orca. Republicans just want to forget Romney.
That's because many of the Republican Party's leaders are, in fact, eager to change. Parties and politicians pivot faster than their friends or enemies ever imagine, and the Republican Party of Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio is pivoting very fast. And for all the reasons that Romney is easy for Republicans to forget, he offers them the ideal sacrifice. Conservatives were always too fond of Barry Goldwater to write him off as the "extremist" Democrats successfully cast him as; they never liked Mitt Romney anyway, and will gladly remember him for his most odious comments.
There is an irony that Romney, the moderate, will be forced to carry off Todd Akin's baggage on reproductive rights, Joe Arpaio's on immigration, and James Dobson's on gay rights. But when he cast popular policies as "gifts" to Obama voters (ignoring both his and Obama's expensive promises to older voters), his decision to, as Bobby Jindal put it, "insult" the demographic groups who are a larger part of each successive electorate offered the Republicans the pivot they had been looking for toward presenting a younger, more diverse, and more inclusive party.
Now Romney's own party will gladly let him, and his reputation, carry off the values for which he is only now, for the first time, really the spokesman.