“Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no.”
That is how Mitt Romney replied to Ashley Parker of the New York Times when she asked if he’d subject himself to the hellish torment of running for president for a third time. Despite those 11 noes, and a whole lot more in various other interviews, there is renewed speculation that Romney is at least considering another presidential run. And I for one am delighted. Though I’m not quite ready to bust out my Romney 2016 kazoo, there is a case to be made that it’s time for another Romney campaign.
I realize that not everyone feels this way. Ramesh Ponnuru, an old friend and colleague for whom I’ve been mistaken on more than one occasion, is singularly unenthusiastic about a third Romney go-around. The problem with Romney, according to Ponnuru, is that “he never seemed to grasp the reasons the Republican Party has performed poorly in recent years,” the main one being that many middle-income voters don’t believe that the GOP cares about their economic interests. Ponnuru reminds his readers that after the 2012 election, Romney explained away the result by saying that President Obama had offered voters “gifts,” implying that there is something ignoble about appealing to citizens’ wants and needs.
Ponnuru is right. The GOP won’t succeed until its candidates convince Americans that their policies will deliver upward mobility for all Americans, and not just the rich. Romney was pretty much the worst possible ambassador for a more populist conservatism, having made his fortune in the arcane world of financial engineering. When Mother Jones released a recording of Romney telling a room full of rich donors that “there are 47 percent of voters who will vote for the president no matter what” because they are “dependent upon government” and because they “believe that they are victims,” he profoundly damaged the conservative cause by confirming the worst suspicions of its critics. More to the point, his remarks betrayed a failure to understand that most of the “dependent” Americans he was writing off aspire to economic self-reliance and are exactly the kind of voters Republicans should be wooing.
Despite all of this, I have a soft spot for Romney, who has always struck me as a likable nerd, a man who spent his 20s and 30s raising a family instead of drinking and carousing. His main indulgence: eating multiple bowls of sugared cereal. Though his 47 percent remarks showed him in his worst light, his decades of charitable giving paint an entirely different picture. I tend to think that Romney’s struggles in 2012 flowed from his defensiveness and his fear of alienating Tea Party conservatives he didn’t truly understand. When Romney was himself, as he was during his first debate with the president, he seemed solid and self-assured. If Romney did indeed decide to run again, he’d be wise to jettison his old playbook and to instead detail how he, as a practitioner of creative destruction and disruptive innovation and all the rest, can help make these powerful economic forces work for all Americans. He could build a new presidential campaign around the need to reform and renew America’s safety net, to make it fiscally sustainable while also making it more effective. Imagine if Romney, having been caricatured as a cat’s-paw of the Wall Street overclass, decided to rail against the outsize power of the megabanks and in favor of a more competitive and inclusive capitalism. If we let Romney be Romney, we might find the populist the party needs.
To be sure, all evidence points to the Mormon paterfamilias par excellence enjoying a long and fruitful retirement, surrounded by his ever-expanding roster of towheaded grandchildren. Indeed, if you believe Tagg Romney, the oldest of Mitt’s colorfully named brood, the elder Romney didn’t even want to run for president in 2012. So when Romney praises various other Republicans who are considering presidential bids of their own, we can rest assured that it’s not false modesty at work. Romney really, really wants to pass the torch.
But consider why Romney ran for president the last time around. Tagg suggested to the Boston Globe’s Michael Kranish that his father felt that there was no other Republican contender who was capable of taking on the job of president. The GOP bench had been thinned by a series of disasters that befell several of its popular and once-popular standard-bearers, a point that Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics made convincingly in January 2012. In a slightly different universe, Republican primary voters in 2012 might have been choosing among candidates like former Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado (messy divorce), former Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina (really messy divorce), then-Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana (messy divorce and remarriage to the ex-wife who had previously divorced him messily), and former Gov. John Rowland of Connecticut (federal corruption conviction). Instead, the 2012 Republican presidential field was dominated by blasts from the past like Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum, as well as a veritable cavalcade of novelty candidates destined for the infomercial circuit.
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.