Romney’s rapid retreat to seclusion

WASHINGTON — The nation is heading toward the “fiscal cliff,” but have no fear: Mitt Romney is coming to the rescue — of Marriott International Inc.

In his first public comments since election night, the defeated Republican presidential nominee issued a statement Monday announcing his next step. An appeal to national unity? A charitable initiative?

No, he announced that he was rejoining the hotel chain’s board of directors. “It is an honor to once again be able to serve in the company of leaders like Bill Marriott,” said Romney’s statement, distributed by Marriott.

It was emblematic of the tone-deaf, I-have-some-great-friends-that-are-NASCAR-team-owners moments that contributed to his loss. The country is in a crisis, political leaders are in a standoff, and Romney is joining his buddy’s corporate board.

Romney is a private citizen now and free to do as he chooses. But it’s not as if he needs the money; the $170,000 in cash and stock that Marriott directors received in the most recent year reported is but a sliver of the $20 million or so Romney takes in annually from his investments.

More to the point, Romney’s first post-election move served to confirm the exhaustive report my Washington Post colleague Philip Rucker did on Romney’s “rapid retreat into seclusion.” Rucker, who covered the Romney campaign, wrote that in the former candidate’s disappearance he is “exhibiting the same detachment that made it so difficult for him to connect with the body politic through six years of running for president.”

Romney’s post-election behavior has been, in a word, small. Never again, likely, will his voice and influence be as powerful as they are now. Yet rather than stepping forward to help find a way out of the fiscal standoff, or to help his party rebuild itself, he delivered a perfunctory concession speech, told wealthy donors that President Obama won by giving “gifts” to minorities, then avoided the press at a private lunch with the president.

Though keeping nominal residence in Massachusetts, the state he led as governor, Romney moved to his California home and has been spotted at Disneyland, at the new “Twilight” movie, at a pizza place, pumping gas and going to the gym. In warm weather, he plans to live at his lakefront manse in New Hampshire. The man who spoke passionately about his love for the American auto industry has been driving around in a new Audi Q7.

A former adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, told Rucker that Romney will “be involved in some fashion” in public service. And nobody can begrudge Romney some downtime. But his failure to engage now, at a time when he could have the most clout, reinforces the impression that his candidacy was less about principle and patriotism than about him.

Romney wove through his campaign a sometimes stirring, sometimes corny patriotism, singing “America the Beautiful” and saying, “I ask the American people to vote for love of country.”

It’s understandable that Romney would now feel like shrinking from the scene: He offered the people a choice, and they chose otherwise. But this is a crucial time for the country and particularly for Romney’s Republican Party, which must unshackle itself from the far right or become irrelevant.

His campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, expressed regret in recent days that the candidate was drawn into taking a hard line on immigration during the primaries. No less a Republican than Karl Rove pleaded for tolerance in the Republican Party, where “moderates and conservatives had gone at each other and made victory impossible.”

Many in the GOP blame Romney for his defeat, particularly since his “gifts” remark. But his real problem was the positions he was forced to take. For him to speak out about this now could repair his party and help the country.

In the fiscal-cliff debate, it’s not clear that John Boehner, Mitch McConnell or anybody else is in control of Republican backbenchers. GOP lawmakers such as Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma are treated as heretics for stating the obvious need to compromise. Romney’s voice could help return his party to reason.

When Romney met Obama at the White House last week, the administration released a statement noting the menu (white turkey chili and Southwestern grilled chicken salad) and saying the two men “pledged to stay in touch, particularly if opportunities to work together on shared interests arise in the future.”

Shared interests? Shouldn’t keeping the nation out of economic calamity qualify as one of those? Marriott and the Q7 can wait.

Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.

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