I have no idea whether Mitt Romney will ever see this editorial. While I do know at least one of my articles was noticed by the erstwhile Republican candidate's inner circle (a piece from six months ago that drew complaints from his former foreign policy adviser Richard Grenell), that hardly assures that anything else I write will make its way to him.
Nevertheless, as the partisan gridlock preventing Republicans and Democrats from finding a way off the so-called "fiscal cliff" brings us closer and closer to economic catastrophe, I figure the quixotic hope that Romney will read these words is worth pursuing. After all, America's fate may hinge on Romney fully appreciating the rare opportunity that has been presented to him:
He has the chance to be remembered by history as a hero among Also Rans.
The term "Also Ran," for those unfamiliar with it, refers to a presidential aspirant who was nominated by one of the major parties of his time only to be vanquished in the general election. While a handful of Also Rans were sufficiently accomplished to avoid having their legacies be primarily defined by their unsuccessful national candidacies - Henry Clay as America's premier parliamentarian, Winfield Scott as one of its greatest military commanders, Horace Greeley as a pioneering newspaper editor, Charles Evans Hughes as the Supreme Court's centrist sage during the New Deal era, Adlai Stevenson and Barry Goldwater as among their respective parties' most influential intellectual heavyweights and policy innovators – the vast majority of the names in the long litany of Also Rans are obscure to all but the most devoted historical scholars. Because Romney is surely aware of this, few can truly understand the tempest of emotions that must be raging inside of him right now.
This no doubt explains the palpable anguish coiling beneath his controversial post-election comments, which attributed his loss to Obama giving "gifts" to minority voters. Unfortunately for him, those remarks have only worsened his likely standing among future historians, who are rarely kind to Also Rans they believe to have been sore losers.
On the other hand, when an Also Ran sets aside his disappointment and works with the man who defeated him in order to achieve a greater good, he is suddenly imbued with the aura of greatness. In one fell swoop he becomes an inspiring figure, a statesman worthy of emulation, a patriot in the deepest sense of the term. His critics may disparage him in other ways, but even his fiercest detractors won't be able to take away the nobility of his post-election actions – or prevent them from being recalled as his foremost legacy.
The men who have earned this distinction can be counted on one hand. Although not technically an Also Ran, John Adams is widely lauded for peacefully relinquishing power after losing to Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800, thereby showing the world that the political experiment known as democracy could indeed work. There was Stephen Douglas in 1860, who despite a lifelong rivalry with Abraham Lincoln toured the South to calm their hysterical reactions to Lincoln's impending election and prevent the mass secessions that he knew would trigger a Civil War (even putting himself in considerable physical peril in the process). More than 80 years later, Wendell Willkie performed a comparable service to his country by urging Americans to support Franklin Roosevelt's leadership during World War II, despite the fact that both men continued to strongly disagree on the economic policy questions that had defined their respective campaigns in the 1940 presidential election.
If Mitt Romney works with President Obama on a compromise both men can support and then uses his clout to openly push for that measure's passage, his name will be added to this list. Not only will he have played a crucial role in preventing an economic disaster, but he will have demonstrated that bipartisanship is possible even in times as fiercely divisive as our own. This may not remove the sting of knowing that he will never be able to serve as president (as George McGovern once observed to Walter Mondale, the hurt never fully wears off), but it will serve as an admirable close to Romney's career in national politics.
Instead of being remembered as just another forgettable Also Ran, he will be cited as an example of the very best that exists in America's unique political character. More important, Romney will have rendered an invaluable service to his country.
For more on defeated presidential candidates, I highly recommend Irving Stone's classic book, "They Also Ran."