Granted, the 2016 Republican field looks quite a bit stronger. In the interview with conservative impresario Hugh Hewitt that kicked off the latest round of Romney 2016 speculation, the former Massachusetts governor named his erstwhile running mate, Paul Ryan, as a great potential candidate and also touted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Let’s reflect on this list for a moment. Ryan may run for president, yet many informed observers believe he’s more interested in leading policy change as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the role he’s all but guaranteed in the next Congress in the likely event Republicans hold the House. Walker is in the fight of his political life and there is no guarantee that he’ll still be governor in a few months’ time. The Christie brand has been tarnished by Bridgegate, fairly or otherwise, and his appeal outside of Acela-land has never been tested. Jindal ranks among America’s least popular governors. And even when we discount Jeb Bush’s dynastic affiliation, his passionate support for Common Core and increased immigration are out of step with the conservative grass roots. Rubio stands apart as a conservative with a knack for talking about upward mobility, but his association with comprehensive immigration reform could be his undoing. There are several names Romney left conspicuously unmentioned—Texas Gov. Rick Perry comes to mind, as do Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. I find it hard to imagine that Romney would feel comfortable getting behind any one of these three.
This process of elimination hardly guarantees that Romney will run for president in 2016, at which point he’ll be 69 years old. But it does give him something to think about.
There is precedent for a two-time loser finally winning the presidency on his third try. Ronald Reagan made a last-ditch effort to secure the GOP nomination in 1968. He nearly wrested it from an incumbent president in 1976. But it was only in 1980 that Reagan, at age 69, finally won. Of course, Reagan was famously charismatic, and he had been a conservative folk hero for years by the time he finally won the Republican nomination. The same can’t be said of Romney.
Nevertheless, there is something to the Reagan parallel. Though he commanded the loyalty of conservatives, Reagan was a decidedly pragmatic governor of California who acquiesced to tax increases, the liberalization of the state’s abortion laws, and other measures that should by all rights have scandalized the right. By the time Reagan ran against Gerald Ford in 1976, however, he presented himself as a conservative purist, devoted to devolving power to state governments and taking a tougher line against the Soviet empire. Between 1976 and 1980, he again underwent another subtle but important shift, smoothing some of his ideological rough edges and offering a more optimistic brand of conservatism tailor-made to appeal to voters who had grown tired of Carter-era malaise.
Could Mitt Romney pull off a similar feat? I wouldn’t rule it out.