Mitt Romney’s Moment

It’s been a good week for Mitt Romney. The polls are up, he’s just off a two-day swing through Connecticut and New York, where he hauled in big donors and hard money, and he swept the GOP primaries in Kentucky and Arkansas. On Tuesday Texas will put him over the top and make him, formally and officially, the Republican nominee for president.

Not everything worked—his big education speech Wednesday was wan and pallid—but he’s having a moment. In a telephone interview, he reflected on the campaign, tracing his candidacy’s upward momentum to an increased sense among voters that the country is on the wrong path and, perhaps, a growing sense that he’s proved himself: “I can tell you that we went through those 37 or 38 contests and won the must-win states, and in some cases we started off 10 points behind. And we hustled, worked hard, and convinced the voters.” This produced “the kind of track record that people say, ‘You know, I think if Mitt can keep that up, in November we’re going to see a new president.’”

Candidates on a campaign van look out the window and see America go by. They meet with people, talk. I asked Mr. Romney the difference between the America he saw in 2008 and the one he sees now. “A much higher degree of anxiety today. People much less confident in the security of their job, less confident in the prospects for their children.” Four years ago, the economic downturn hadn’t occurred. “In my primary, the central issue was Iraq.” Now it is the economy.

Before rallies and town meetings, he always tries to have private, off-the-record meetings with voters. “I sit down with five or six couples or individuals and just go around the table, and I ask them to tell me about their life. And the stories I hear suggest a degree of anxiety which is not reflected in the statistics.” He is struck, he said, by the number of people who are employed but in legitimate fear of being let go. He is struck by the number of people who’ve made investments for their retirement—real estate, 401(k)s—and seen them go down.

He keeps a campaign journal on his iPad: “Now this is going to make my iPad a subject of potential theft!” He used to speak his entries, but now he types them on an attached keyboard. “I’ve kept up pretty well, actually.” He writes every two or three days, so that 10 years from now he can “remember what it was like,” but also to capture “the feelings—the ups the downs, the people I meet and the sense I have about what’s going to happen. It’s kind of fun to go back and read, as Ann and I do from time to time.”

Does he love politics—the joy of it, the fight of it? “What I love are the political rallies and town meetings. I love the interchange with individuals that are probing and pushing.”

But the game of politics? “I like competition, and I think the game is like a sport for old guys. I mean, you know, I can’t compete in competitive sports very well, but I can compete in politics, and there’s the—what was the old ABC ‘Wide World of Sports’ slogan? ‘The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.’ The only difference is victory is still a thrill, but I don’t feel agony in loss.”

Do you wake up in a good mood, or do you have to work your way into it? “Depends on the day.” He laughs. “Depends on the issue. The only time I’m unhappy is if I’ve done something that hurt the prospects for the success of our effort.”

When was the last time you woke up unhappy? He says he doesn’t recall. Then: “Sometimes you’re disappointed, but it’s mostly disappointment with myself that causes me to be most concerned. This for me is not my life, meaning I don’t have to win an election to feel good about myself.” He’s achieved success in business “beyond my wildest dreams.” He’s “hoping to make a contribution and go to Washington and go home when it’s over. . . . Who I am has long ago been determined by my relationship with the people I love, and with my success in my professional career.”

All great political families have myths, stories they tell themselves about how history happened. The great story about Mr. Romney’s father, George, is that one word—”brainwashed”—did in his presidential candidacy in 1968. People have hypothesized that Mitt is careful with words and statements, that he edits his thoughts too severely, because of the power of that myth.

“I don’t think my father’s comment figures into my thinking at all,” he says. It’s his own mistakes “that make me want to kick myself in the seat of my pants,” that “cause me to try and be a little more careful in what I say. . . . I’ve had a couple of those during the campaign, which have haunted me a little bit, but I’m sure before this is over will haunt me a lot.”

Asked for an example, he mentions “I like to be able to fire people.” He meant, he says, those, such as health-insurance companies, that provide inadequate services. “I have to think not only about what I say in a full sentence but what I say in a phrase.” In the current media environment, “you will be taken out of context, you’ll be clipped, and you’ll be battered with things you said.” He says it is interesting that “the media always says, ‘Gosh, we just want you to be spontaneous,’ but at the same time if you say anything in the wrong order, you’re gonna be sorry!”

What about historic parallelism—the people who say, “This election is 1980 all over again,” or, “No, it’s 1996”? What year is it?

“It’s 2012.” He laughs. History sometimes repeats “its lessons,” but “history does not repeat itself identically. This is a different time than any other time before it.”

“I think there have been inflection points in American history where the course of the nation has changed, where culture, industry, even military strategy have changed.” The Civil War was one such time, the turn of the last century another.

He believes we are in one now: “I think America is going to decide whether we will put ourself on a path toward Europe—whether we will become another nation dominated by government, where citizens are dependent on government for the things they want in life, where opportunity is sacrificed, where military strength is depleted to pay for government promises, where unemployment is chronically high and wage growth chronically low. That, in my view, is the course the president has put us upon.” If Barack Obama is re-elected, “it will be very difficult to get off that path. If I’m elected, I will usher in a period of economic vitality,” that will leave the world “surprised.”

Not only the world: “America is going to see a vitality we had not expected.”