WASHINGTON - As I look back at the 2012 presidential campaign, it now all seems so obvious.
Not one of those clowns performing at the hundreds of Republican primary debates this year and last was a match for the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney. And Romney clearly wasn't the candidate to defeat President Barack Obama.
Yes and yes - but still. We don't always see what's happening before our very eyes. To me, the last 12 months (give or take a few) raise two central questions: If we don't learn from the flawed candidates of the past, how will we avoid taking them seriously in the future? And now that he is unencumbered by presidential ambitions, what should Romney do with the rest of his public life? Taking the first question first, I confess that I accepted Herman Cain as a viable candidate for president long after his sell-by date. Then it was time for Rick Santorum, who was anointed by the Christian right as the un-clown who could stop Romney.
"If you were to bolt a conservative candidate together from spare parts - and Santorum sometimes seems as if he has been," I wrote in December 2011, "you would get something akin to the former Pennsylvania senator."
He wore his faith on his sweater vest, was intensely pro- life and had a family to rival Romney's. When evangelicals finally got together in a Houston suburb to eat, pray and lurch their way to an endorsement in mid-January, Santorum got the nod, if not a hug. (The group's first love, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, had too many stumbles.)
Newt Gingrich - professional provocateur, moon colonizer, disgraced former speaker of the House - could never win the Republican nomination for president, although I wrote about him as if he could. A serial adulterer who tried to repair his image by endorsing a conservative group's vow to protect marriage, one of his low moments was having his daughters from his first wife defend Gingrich's third wife against charges by his second wife that he had urged her to have an "open marriage."
My defense for writing so much about Gingrich is that hypocrisy is rarely so entertaining. Besides, Gingrich did have an impact - his victory in South Carolina roused the rusty establishment, which exposed his exaggerated relationship with former President Ronald Reagan and Gingrich's mediocre record as speaker. Then Romney and his super-PACs spent more than $10 million for ads in Florida, which was more than enough to finish off Gingrich.
So the putative front-runner finally became the actual front-runner. I was still under the illusion that, with such a rotten economy, a challenger would easily be able to defeat an incumbent president.
And yet, was Romney ever really viable?
He was so unloved that at one point even Cain polled better. Romney simply couldn't connect with voters long enough to take advantage of the president's weakness. Being yourself (or yourselves) is hard enough without the artificial authenticity of politics. What an ordeal every day must have been for Romney, as he tried to find a way of being that would get people, even in his own party, to stop saying what a stiff phony he was.
Trying to prove them wrong, he went for spontaneous only to blurt out ridiculous things he couldn't possibly have believed. Did he really like to fire people, or favor self-deportation, or think that $10,000 was a reasonable amount for a bet?
Even at a carefully choreographed convention, he didn't feel the love. His thunder (as well as that of his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, and Romney's wife, Ann) was stolen by Clint Eastwood. Four months later, Eastwood's rambling attack on an imaginary Obama remains the convention's most memorable moment. I got that one right, as did a lot of other people.
Romney's fate was sealed in September when a secretly recorded video surfaced that showed him a few months earlier at a fundraising dinner talking about the "47 percent of people who will vote for the president no matter what" because they rely on government handouts and "believe that they are victims." His job, Romney said, was "not to worry about those people."
An excellent first debate in Denver wasn't enough to correct that. And when voters saw Obama hug Gov. Chris Christie while touring New Jersey towns devastated by Hurricane Sandy, showing competence and bipartisanship, it was really over.
Yet Romney always thought he was going to win. For election night, he prepared not a concession speech but an eight-minute celebratory fireworks display over Boston Harbor.
Romney wasn't the sorriest player in this sorry political year. That title might go to former presidential candidate John Edwards, whose reputation was further degraded even though he was acquitted of violating campaign-finance laws; or Gen. David Petraeus, who was forced to resign after an affair with his adoring biographer was revealed.
Unlike most of this year's other losers, Romney still has money, an organization and a band of wealthy donors. So what should he do with them? My suggestion is to take on Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association.
LaPierre says he represents beleaguered gun owners, but his massive war chest comes from the gun industry (which has provided him with almost $40 million in recent years), not necessarily from NRA members.
What Romney first needs to do is quash the NRA's unhinged crusade to put armed security guards and out-of-work police officers at every school. LaPierre announced this last week after the unspeakable massacre of 20 small children, and some of the teachers who tried to save them, in a small town in Connecticut. The deranged gunman, wielding a military-type assault weapon, also killed his mother and himself.
Then Romney can lead the campaign for the assault-weapon ban, which is being readied for the new Congress and is much tougher than the one that lapsed in 2004.
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney embraced gun control, signing an assault- weapons ban. He could stiffen the resolve of lawmakers whose fear of the NRA is greater than their grief for dead 6-year- olds.
That's a battle Romney could be proud of fighting - even if, shudder to think, he loses.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.