It’s a pretty sure bet that we won’t be hearing from Mitt Romney about the rejuvenating qualities of Viagra, or find ourselves preoccupied with his facial hair. So what does lie ahead for the 2012 Republican presidential nominee?
Losing nominees have coped for the most part in ways related to the lives they led before. Romney spent most of his life in business and isn’t deeply rooted in a political party or movement. That personal history and his silence so far make his path forward a mystery. Will he recede to a private life centered on family and faith, or play a more public role that he may be just starting to think about?
Washington exerts an irresistible pull on some losing nominees, who want to keep making and molding policy even if not as president. The pioneer was John Quincy Adams, a senator, ambassador and secretary of state who became president in 1825 – then lost his reelection bid and went on to an illustrious career in the House.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey was another who swallowed his pride. He rose from the Senate to the vice presidency to the 1968 Democratic nomination. After losing, he ran again for the Senate and died in office in 1978. The Senate was “the love of his life,” says Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. The 1964 Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, was also a Senate devotee. He served 30 years there in two chunks, one before and one after his landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson.
Bob Dole was in the House and Senate for 35 years before winning the Republican nomination in 1996. He joined a Washington law firm after losing to Bill Clinton (less predictably, he became a spokesman for Viagra). Vice President Walter Mondale, a former two-term senator, also joined a law firm after losing to Ronald Reagan in 1984, and later served as an ambassador to Japan.
Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee, returned to his job as Massachusetts governor, then became a public policy professor – not a surprise for the man who famously took a book on Swedish land-use planning on a vacation. John Kerry, the Democrats’ 2004 nominee, went back to his job as a senator and now is poised to win confirmation as the country’s next secretary of state – another non-surprise, given his internationalist background.
Vice President Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic nominee, was a true creature of Washington. His father was a senator and he himself spent 16 years in the House and Senate followed by eight as vice president. After enduring probably the toughest loss in U.S. history, he dropped out of sight in Spain, gained weight and grew a beard. However, building on decades of commitment to environmental issues, he soon resurfaced as a celebrated proselytizer for action on climate change.
There are fewer bread crumbs in Romney’s life to signal the direction he might take. He spent four years as governor of Massachusetts and no other time in government. He founded and led Bain Capital and made it a roaring success, but he’s been out of the private equity business for years. He’s 65 and he has all the money he needs, a personal fortune estimated at $230 million.
Romney’s first career move after the election was to rejoin the board of Marriott International, which did not go over well in some quarters. Beyond that, his son Tagg told The Boston Globe that Romney is studying why his campaign failed and plans to report back to the GOP with recommendations.
That’s squarely in the comfort zone for Romney, whose Bain achievements were rooted in unsparing analysis of when and whether companies should be rescued, grown or folded. It’s also not hard to imagine Romney tapped by governors or a president – even President Obama -- for high-profile, temporary assignments akin to his tenure as CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, during which he cleaned up a mess and presided over successful games.
Most important in Romney’s life, judging by his words, deeds and philanthropy, are his faith and his large and expanding family. He will doubtless continue to be a major donor to the Mormon church and related groups, and to build financial security for his children and grandchildren.
The real surprise will be if Romney dives into politics, maybe by forming a super PAC or making huge contributions to other political action committees, or moves into a new area of civic activism. He could, for instance, use his high profile and substantial resources to launch a major national or international project related to health or education. He could set up a group to fund and advise young people who have solid ideas for new businesses, but whose families don’t have resources to help them. That would prove that sometimes a campaign gaffe is just a campaign gaffe.
How likely is any of this? It’s certainly possible that Romney would be interested in creating a public legacy other than “47 percent” or “first Mormon to win a major-party presidential nomination” or, especially, “governor who created the template for Obamacare.” The direction he chooses in his post-campaign life could be more revealing than anything we’ve learned about this reserved politician to date.