Two weeks ago, the most prominent leaders of the Republican Party were scrambling to elect Mitt Romney president. Now, many are scrambling to get away from him as fast as they can.
And that has some other Republicans wondering what the whole spectacle says about the GOP. "We have not sent out any messages since the election that are endearing us to the voters," says Romney adviser and longtime GOP leader Vin Weber. "If you're a voter, and you look at the Republican Party, and the first thing you see is Republican leaders dumping all over the guy they spent two years telling us should be the leader of the country -- that doesn't make you feel better about the Republican Party."
The proximate cause of all the dumping is Romney's statement, on a conference call with donors last week, that President Obama won, in part, because he bestowed "gifts" on favored constituencies like blacks, Hispanics and young people. The "gifts" explanation, which echoed Romney's damaging "47 percent" video from September, sent Republicans racing for the doors.
"If we want to continue to lose elections, if we want to become a minority party, if we want to become less relevant to this national debate, we should just continue saying things like that," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a possible 2016 contender, told me in Las Vegas a few hours after Romney's words made news.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whom Romney considered as a possible running mate, agreed with Jindal and added, "You can't expect to be a leader of all the people and be divisive." Former House speaker -- and former Romney opponent -- Newt Gingrich pronounced Romney's words "insulting" and "nuts." And Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Sen. John McCain, said, "Our candidate Romney" helped put the Republicans in a "death spiral" with sought-after Hispanic voters.
In addition to Weber, some of Romney's aides remain defiant. One Romney adviser attributed much of the Republican criticism to what he believes is the continued wrong-headedness of the GOP pundit class who criticized Romney for the last couple of years. Many spent a long time casting doubt on Romney's bona fides.
"Yet he went out and won the nomination," wrote the aide in an email exchange. "Without putting in a dime of his own money. How did he do it? Well, more than anything there were the [primary season] debates. The debates proved that Romney was the most appealing Republican in the crowd. Appealing to VOTERS. Republican voters."
"So I would be very hesitant," the aide continued, "to believe that suddenly those who are criticizing Mitt Romney now are any more right than those who did for much of the last year and a half."
Meanwhile, the Romney team is still trying to piece together the events that led to defeat. In the same Nov. 14 conference call with donors during which Mitt Romney discussed "gifts," campaign pollster Neil Newhouse gave what is now the campaign's official explanation of defeat.
"The Obama campaign was very successful in running kind of a very small campaign but in a very big way," Newhouse said. "Their targeting of younger voters, Hispanics, African-Americans and women, and really changing the composition of the electorate -- that's what they said they were going to try to do. They did it in 2008, and really, they did it this time as well."
Newhouse said his polling always showed an "enthusiasm gap" in Romney's favor throughout the race. "The intensity behind Mitt's support was very strong, much higher than the Democrats, much higher than Obama's," Newhouse said. "But as it turned out on Election Day, in a high-turnout election, what the Democrats did and the Obama campaign did was they turned out even their low-propensity voters, so they ended up washing away whatever intensity or enthusiasm margin we had built up."
Of course, if Romney really did have more intensity, and Obama still got more voters, then there was something more important than excitement at work on Nov. 6. It might be, for example, that voters, in a nonexcited kind of way, simply believed more deeply in what Obama and the Democrats offered than Romney and the Republicans.
Which means that the GOP's postelection analysis of Obama's superior get-out-the-vote operation might be missing a larger point. "With all the focus on turnout operations and all that," says Vin Weber, "you've heard very little discussion about why the Republicans should lead America."
Someday, that is the discussion the GOP will have to have.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.