An October 1973 Time story, "Time for a New Frugality," began with what the magazine called "an old New England maxim": "Use it up/ Wear it out/ Make it do/ Or do without." This week, rather than splurging on a new idea, Time dusted off the old one with a cover story on "The New Frugality." Except for guns and gambling, says Time, Americans are finally learning how to do without.
Newsmagazine trends come and go, but some irrefutable evidence has emerged to prove this one's for real: Renowned trendsetter Mitt Romney is doing without. According to the Belmont Citizen-Herald, he and his wife just sold their Boston home for $3.5 million—the second multimillion-dollar home they've sold in the past month. The Romneys began the year with four McMansions—in Massachusetts, Utah, California, and New Hampshire. Now they're making do with two.
Romney is the Madonna of American politics, constantly reinventing himself to meet the demands of a new era. Other politicians wait for the wind to change and come back their way. Romney loads the family in the Rambler, straps the dog on the roof, and drives all night until the wind is at his back.
In the run-up to the 2008 primaries, Romney gave himself a conservative makeover, trading in the moderate stands he had been forced to assume to run for office in Massachusetts. This time, with his conservative credentials in order, he seems to be eyeing a different transformation—from master of the universe to man of the people.
Romney has always been the mood ring of the Republican Party, so the sell-off seems the perfect symbol of a broader movement among Republicans: They're downsizing! Demand is slack, and it's too soon to know when they'll find the bottom.
In the same way that corporate and consumer downsizing is scrambling our economy, Republican downsizing raises a host of new questions about our political landscape. For starters, when the Romneys have no trouble making back-to-back sales of Wayne Manor-size mansions, isn't that a sign that Obama's economic recovery plan is working?
To his credit, Romney never went along with Rush Limbaugh's conservative mantra, "I Hope Obama Fails." "We want our country to succeed, no matter who's in power," Romney told CPAC in March. "In good times and bad, the interests of this great nation come first." Perhaps pragmatism crosses party lines: If you had two seven-figure mortgages to unload, you'd root for Obama to succeed, too.
Second, when new owners buy a $5.25 million, 9,500-square-foot ski villa in Deer Valley, Utah, and a $3.5 million, 6,400-square-foot, 13-room home in Boston, is that a sign of the New Frugality—or proof that even in hard times, there is always New Money?
The Belmont home comes complete with pool, clay tennis court, six bedrooms, and six and a half baths on two and a half acres, which worked out to a bed, a bath, and a half-acre for each of the five Romney brothers. That house became famous in 2006, when the Boston Globe interviewed illegal Guatemalan immigrants Romney had hired to tend the lawn. "They wanted that house to look really nice," one worker told the Globe. "It took a long time." During his presidential campaign, Romney got caught employing illegal workers a second time but fired the contractor—so the grounds crew does not convey.
In the glossy 12-page brochure for 3853 Rising Star Lane, the Deer Valley property looks really nice, too. Longtime Romney watchers will recognize it as the scene of his decision to run for president, as told in Ann Romney's captivating video, "Christmas 2006." The new owner, race car driver Hal Prewitt, reportedly paid "a little less" than the $5.25 million asking price. The multiple levels of the spectacular timber-and-stone home snake down the mountainside like the Dow Jones average.
Romney's decision to abandon the landed class in Utah and Massachusetts raises a third question: Has the Great Recession doomed one of the great hedge markets of all time—multistate political career shopping? The first President Bush was born in Massachusetts, grew up a senator's son in Connecticut, ran for office in Texas, and vacationed a few miles from New Hampshire at his compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Romney grew up a governor's son in Michigan, could have run for governor in Massachusetts or Utah, and did Bush one better with a compound on Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H. His four homes spanned 76 electoral votes.
Over the years, multiple residency has been the curse of the politically ambitious and over-privileged. Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins was born in Michigan and graduated a few years ahead of Romney at Cranbrook School, rose to brigadier general after West Point and Oxford, and was mentioned as a potential candidate in nine different states before choosing to run for Senate in New Jersey. James Carville promptly destroyed him as a carpetbagger.
As Dawkins learned the hard way, most places tend to think roots weren't made for walking. Ironically, future generations of Romneys will be better off with fewer homes to choose from.
These days, with most Americans reviewing what's left of their assets, it makes sense for Romney to do the same. He may well have been right to conclude, as the sheep in Animal Farm might say, "Two homes good, four homes bad." At more than $10 million apiece, his two remaining castles would be hard to sell, anyway.
The biggest question about Romney's downsizing, however, is more fundamental. Given his balance sheet, are the two McMansions he sold really the most urgent liabilities to shed? There's not much point bothering with one concession to political reality (that most voters can barely afford one home, let alone two or four) while continuing to deny a more important political reality: Most voters don't buy the conservative economic foundations on which Romney's political future is built.
Last week, Barack Obama described his economic philosophy as "our house built upon the rock." When Republicans finish downsizing, they, too, might want to look for higher ground.