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Does Mitt Romney Know When to Quit?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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The other night, on "The Hugh Hewitt Show," I was asked what writing a book on failure told me about Mitt Romney's decision to possibly run for president a third time. I answered that what it told me is that Romney had better study the lessons of his previous failures carefully.

One of the most common comments I got while I was on book tour was "Sure, failure's great for people who go on to success, but what about the people who don't? By looking at the people who ultimately triumphed, aren't you ignoring the fact that failure often just sucks? Most disasters are not the precursor to the iPod; they're just miserable."

The answer I gave is that I'm well aware that failure often just sucks; that's why I included so many personal stories about my own failures and how miserable I was about them. My point is not "Hey, failure is awesome, so enjoy it," which would be lunatic. Failure feels terrible. (It has to, because failure is nature's way of saying "Hey, stop that!" If it didn't feel really awful, we wouldn't stop.)

Rather, the point of my book is that failure is inevitable, so you'd better learn to deal with it as best you can. Don't say "Failure is not an option" the way they do in movies, because I promise you, failure is always an option. Prepare for it. Learn from it. Move on.

The follow-up question I frequently got -- and a completely fair one -- is "OK, how do you know when it's time to pack it in? 'If at first you don't succeed, try, try again' only takes you so far, after all."

In response, I ended up telling a story. It's the story of a girl who was destined to be around 6'2", a fact ascertained during her toddlerhood by the family doctor. (Apparently you can reasonably approximate adult height by measuring a little kid's leg bones. Or maybe by looking at her 6'7" dad.) 

This little girl briefly wanted to be a gymnast. This was not in her destiny. So she settled on a new ambition. She wanted to be a jockey.

The girl grew very fast. By the time she was in fifth grade, she was over 5' tall. By seventh grade, she had reached her full height. And it was just around this time that someone pointed out that she was already a foot too tall to be a jockey.

Should this girl -- and yes, it was our very own Megan McArdle -- have pluckily ignored the critics and the naysayers and dedicated herself to achieving her dream? To answer that, ask yourself another question: Should you try to dislodge a stuck lemon peel from the garbage disposal while it's still running?

No, no, no. This can only end in disaster.

Sometimes what failure is telling you is "this doesn't work" or "you don't have what it takes." Ignoring those messages is, in fact, how many of the folks I chronicled in my book turned a simple failure into a total disaster.

But how do you know the difference?

Well, as with many things, I like to return to the parable of Chesterton's fence:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

Perhaps you are puzzled. Perhaps you want to ask, in a small, strained voice, what on earth Chesterton's musings about social policy have to do with elections or failure.

Quite a lot, actually. Because the fundamental problem is the same: Can you name what this obstacle is doing here? If you can, then you have a reasonable shot at removing it. If you cannot, then you should go away and look for another path.

If you are trying to start a manufacturing business, and customers aren't buying your product but you don't know why, then it's probably time to pack it in. If your customers say they want to buy lots of your product but it's priced 20 percent too high -- OK, well, is there any way to get the price down to that level?

If you and your beloved are having screaming fights about money, you can probably fix that with some budgeting discipline and compromise. If you have screaming fights about everything, you're probably headed for divorce court.

Sometimes you can name the problem, and it's obvious that there's no way to fix it, as with a business that finds "Our customers love the product, but there's no revenue model," or an aspiring jockey who finds out that her genes have foreclosed this possibility. But if you can't name it, then you definitely can't fix it.

So we return to Mitt Romney: Can he name the factors that made him fail in 2012, and can he fix them this time around?

I can name some small things he could fix, like making embarrassing off-the-cuff remarks at an ostensibly private fundraiser or failing to tap all the great stories he could have told -- or had surrogates tell for him -- about the pastoral care he provided to fellow Mormons. But ultimately, I'm afraid I think that the most important lesson of prior campaigns is that Mitt Romney is not a very appealing presidential candidate. He's a bit stiff, he does not come across as personally likable on television, his politics and personality don't inspire the base, and his personal wealth can be very effectively demagogued by his Democratic opponents. Aside from people who were actually his campaign advisers, I didn't meet a single person in any year who was fervent in their support of his candidacy; the best he did was "not Obama." That is not going to improve on a third viewing.

I'm not saying that Mitt Romney is not a good person, or a worthy person. He might well make a good president. But if he gets the Republican nomination, he increases the chances that his party will lose. And if he runs, he will divert resources that his party might use to actually win the election.

It doesn't sound as if Mitt Romney is considering those lessons; he is looking at the side issues, rather than his fundamental flaw, which is that voters just did not connect with him. I admire anyone who has the grit to pick himself up and try again after a bad fall. But sometimes it's time to hang up the jodphurs and look for another path.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net