By Dana Milbank
FAIRFAX, Va. — As he made his closing appeal to voters on the final day before the election, Mitt Romney sounded as though, at any moment, he might burst into a song from the musical “Annie.”
“Tomorrow’s a moment to look into the future and imagine what we can do,” he said.
“Tomorrow, we get to work rebuilding our country, restoring our confidence and renewing our conviction.”
“Tomorrow, on November 6th, we come together for a better future.”
“Tomorrow is a new beginning. Tomorrow we begin a new tomorrow.”
There was something new and unusual about this Romney — and not only that he had appropriated Stephen Colbert’s campaign theme, “Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow.” In the waning days of the campaign, Romney was uplifting, optimistic and inspirational — in other words, almost entirely different from the man we saw and heard these past many months.
“The best achievements are shared achievements,” the reformed Romney told about 5,000 supporters at the Patriot Center at George Mason University in Fairfax County. “I’ve learned that respect and good will go a long way and are usually returned in kind. That’s how I’ll conduct myself as president. I’ll bring people together. I won’t just represent one party, I’ll represent one nation.”
Jettisoned from the “closing argument” he has made on the stump the last four days of the campaign are the harshest attacks and the most mendacious of his accusations against President Obama. Gone is the charge that Obama is leading the nation into European socialism, his false claims that Obama took an “apology tour” of the country, his insinuations that Obama doesn’t understand the United States, that he’s in over his head — and other lines that identified Obama as un-American, as alien.
In place of those lines, Romney substituted tough but reasonable criticism of Obama, coupled with an appeal for Americans to come together. “I’d like you to reach across the street to that neighbor with the other yard sign,” he said, “and we’ll reach across the aisle here in Washington to people of good faith in the other party.”
As I listened to these rare words come out of Romney’s mouth, I was joined on the floor of the Patriot Center by Stuart Stevens, Romney’s top strategist, who is justifiably pleased with his candidate. The Obama campaign, Stevens said, “didn’t disqualify him.”
That’s true, but hearing Romney’s new tone for the last days of the campaign, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened had he taken the high road months ago. Stevens’ answer: “It would be old by now.”
Maybe so. And maybe Romney would have been destroyed by the Obama campaign’s attacks if he had tried to stay above the fray. But maybe he would have appeared more presidential — which is the image Stevens was going for in the revamped stump speech, delivered off the teleprompter Republicans love to revile when Obama uses it.
The uplifting Mitt was introduced to crowds in the final days with a soft-focus video set to gentle piano music. Volunteers handed out “Moms for Mitt” signs to audience members, adding to the soft-and-fuzzy feel. This speech began with a few brief words from Ann Romney, who asked those gathered in Fairfax, “Are we going to be neighbors soon?”
The crowd was big (the campaign decided to use only half of the 10,000-capacity arena, which created an overflow of a couple of thousand outside) but Romney gave them few of the anti-Obama applause lines, delivering his criticism more in sadness than anger: “Four years ago, then-candidate Obama promised to do so very much, but he’s done so very little.”
Of course, Romney’s lofty closing isn’t likely to erase his divisive campaign, in which he wrote off 47 percent of Americans as moochers and went after Obama in ways that were flagrantly false and sometimes racially tinged. And few are likely to believe his late call for bonhomie — that’s a staple of presidential campaigns’ closing arguments — or to accept that he no longer holds the “severely conservative” views that won him the GOP nomination.
Had he offered these views earlier, he might have been viewed as a bigger man, and a better candidate.
“Walk with me. Let’s walk together,” he offered. A nice sentiment — but it would have been more plausible if he hadn’t spent the past year kneecapping his opponents.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.