SAN, DIEGO – The man who planned to be president wakes up each morning now without a plan.
Mitt Romney looks out the windows of his beach house in La Jolla, a moneyed and pristine enclave of San Diego, at noisy construction workers fixing up his next-door neighbor’s home, sending regular updates on the renovation. He devours news from Washington, shaking his head and wondering what if.
Gone are the minute-by-minute schedules and the swarm of Secret Service agents. There is no aide to make his peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches. Romney hangs around the house, sometimes alone, pecking away at his iPad and emailing his CEO buddies, who have been swooping in and out of La Jolla to visit. He wrote to one who is having a liver transplant soon, “I’ll change your bedpan, take you back and forth to treatment.”
It is not what Romney imagined he would be doing as the new year approaches. Four weeks after losing a presidential election he was convinced he would win, Romney’s rapid retreat into seclusion has been marked by repressed emotions, second guessing and — perhaps for the first time in the overachiever’s adult life — sustained boredom, according to interviews with more than a dozen of Romney’s closest friends and advisers.
“He’s like 41,” adviser Ron Kaufman said, referring to former President George Bush. “Forty-one would hate to lose a game of horseshoes to the gardener in the White House, and Mitt hates to lose. He’s a born competitor.”
The defeated GOP nominee has practically disappeared from public view since his loss, exhibiting the same detachment that made it so difficult for him to connect with the body politic through six years of running for president. He has made no public comments since his concession speech in the early hours of Nov. 7, and avoided the press last week during a private lunch with President Barack Obama at the White House.
After Romney told his wealthy donors that he blamed his loss on “gifts” Obama gave to minority groups, his functionaries were unrepentant and Republican luminaries effectively cast him out. Few of the policy ideas he promoted are even being discussed in Washington.
“Nothing so unbecame his campaign as his manner of leaving it,” said Robert Shrum, a senior strategist on Democratic presidential campaigns. “I don’t think he’ll ever be a significant figure in public life again.”
Friends insist Romney is not bitter. Bitterness, said one member of the family, “is not in the Romney genetic code.”
By all accounts, the past month has been most difficult on Romney’s wife, Ann, who friends said believed up until the end that ascending to the White House was their destiny. They said she has been crying in private and trying to get back to riding her horses.
Romney has been keeping in shape with bike rides around La Jolla, past the bistros and boutiques that hug the rugged coastline. The son of Detroit — who boasted of the Cadillacs he owned as a sign of support for the U.S. auto industry during the campaign — was spotted driving a new black Audi Q7, a luxury SUV manufactured in Slovakia.
Over Thanksgiving, one of Romney’s five sons, Josh, his wife and their four children packed into a single bedroom at the Spanish-style villa on Dunemere Drive. One friend said they ordered their turkey dinner from Boston Market, a home-style restaurant chain, because there were too many kids running around the house to bother with cooking a feast.
Romney also is plotting his next career steps — a return to business, perhaps, or something in the charitable realm or with the Mormon Church, said friends who have discussed possibilities with him. He kept a diary on the campaign trail and is considering writing a book.
“He’s a very vibrant, young 65-year-old. He looks 55 and acts 45,” Kaufman said. “He’s got a lot of life left in him.”
Romney has ruled out running for another office, adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. Still, he doesn’t plan to recede completely from public life. “He’ll be involved in some fashion because that’s the commitment of his family to public service,” Fehrnstrom said.
After Romney’s father, George, lost his 1968 presidential race and finished serving in President Nixon’s Cabinet, he ran a national nonprofit organization that advocated volunteerism. Friends said Romney has mentioned the Clinton Global Initiative as a model he might replicate.
Unlike the last two unsuccessful nominees, Sens. John McCain and John Kerry, Romney had no job waiting for him. His public platform fell out from under him on election night. “That transition to happen so fast — it’s got to be hard. He doesn’t talk about it or really show it,” said L.E. Simmons, an oil investor and close friend who visited the Romneys after Thanksgiving.
In private, Romney has told friends he has little interest in helping the Republican Party rebuild and rebrand itself.
Romney relied heavily on like-minded millionaires such as Simmons to raise more than $1 billion during the campaign, and he has been calling many of them to thank them individually for their help. Last week, he called Jet Blue Airways Chairman Joel Peterson, an old friend. “He just said, ‘I’m sorry I let you guys down,’ ” Peterson said. “He sounded really calm, upbeat, warm. There was no anger or sense of defensiveness.”
So far, however, Romney hasn’t called up some supporters who contributed in other ways.
For years, as he competed for the affections of GOP activists in Iowa, Romney called Joni Scotter over and over again — on her birthdays, on her 50th wedding anniversary. When Scotter’s husband passed away this spring, Romney had white roses and lilies delivered to her. Scotter said she hasn’t heard from Romney since he lost Iowa on Nov. 6.
Friends said Romney plans to reside mostly in La Jolla during the colder months and in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where he has a lakefront compound, during the warmer months. But he will maintain his official residency in Massachusetts.
Romney will keep a small office in Boston — he is subletting the space from Solamere Capital, the private equity firm founded by his eldest son, Tagg, and his campaign’s finance chairman, Spencer Zwick — where his only remaining aide, assistant Kelli Harrison, will manage his affairs.
Romney has personally helped his out-of-work staffers land new jobs, holding office hours inside the campaign headquarters for anyone who wanted his counsel. Campaign chairman Bob White created an internal resume bank and marshaled the vast donor network to help.
In California, there is still some joy, friends say. A photo surfaced before Thanksgiving showing a grinning Romney riding a roller coaster during a visit with his grandkids to Disneyland.
Romney also wrote to Miller, who has been out of town, that his La Jolla neighbor’s house was “a mess” from a renovation project and that “nobody was working.”
“He was pulling my leg,” Miller said.