This Year’s Mitt Romney

Once a GOP White Knight decides to run for president, the party turns on him. Romney knows that better than anyone.

Photo by Matt Rainey/Getty Images
If Romney truly is a good decision-maker, he might think twice about running again.

Photo by Matt Rainey/Getty Images

Romney 2012 could really have benefited from the speculation about Romney 2016. When Mitt Romney was a Republican presidential candidate, he had to suffer boomlets of enthusiasm for other contenders as GOP Wise Men rooted around for alternatives—what about Gov. Chris Christie? Was Jeb Bush going to run? Mitch Daniels? Now that Romney is not running, he’s the object of desire. Could he be the White Knight candidate to rescue the party from its current weak field? The former Massachusetts governor has repeatedly denied that he wants to run again, but Byron York of the Washington Examiner reports that Romney is “carefully weighing the pluses and minuses of another run.”

One thing the two-time candidate might want to weigh is whether a process that consistently elevates the person not running will ultimately discard that person once he decides to run. It’s a twist on the Groucho Marx line about not wanting to join a club that would have him as a member. Once you agree to become the GOP’s savior candidate, you are immediately unworthy.

Romney knows this. It’s why he wisely told a group of supporters this June at his annual gathering in Park City, Utah: “The unavailable is always the most attractive, right?” Still, it must be hard to resist the breeze of redemption blowing his way recently.

Romney is enjoying a rebirth because of disappointment in President Obama as well as some particular challenges to the likely GOP field. In a CNN poll, a majority of Americans (53 percent to 44 percent) said they would now vote for Romney over Obama. In Republican ranks, Romney looks more appealing as former White Knight candidates like Christie, Jeb Bush, and Gov. Scott Walker lose a little of their shine. When he was a candidate, Iowa treated Romney roughly, but in August he was way ahead of the pack in a poll there. (It’s a poll that is meaningless as a predictor of voter sentiment but that gets passed around by people trying to whip up candidacies.)

For many involved in Romney’s last effort, there is reason to delight in this redemption that doesn’t necessarily have to do with wanting to see Romney run again. Those who bundled money for him in 2012 now feel a little better around their friends whom they squeezed for the cash. That was harder to do when the Romney campaign ended and was considered an embarrassment. Those who worked for the candidate are enjoying a status upgrade, too.

But is Romney really a stronger candidate than the members of the current field? A flawless imagined Romney presidency looks good compared with the up-close reality of the Obama presidency—particularly if you focus on Romney’s wariness about the threat Russia poses and Obama’s smug dismissal of the idea during the second debate. There’s also the gross mismanagement at the Department of Veteran Affairs, the shoddy implementation of healthcare.gov, and the president’s own admitted blindness to the emerging threat of ISIS, all of which suggest management failures at basic tasks that create an appetite for someone with Romney’s executive experience—or any executive experience at all. 

But the task before Romney, if he chooses to run again, is not to be a good president, but to be a good candidate. There’s nothing in the Obama blunders that improves how Romney looks as a candidate. He has all of the old baggage that caused him trouble in the 2012 race, plus that competition burdened him with a few soggy valises he’d now have to carry into any new run.

Romney’s first challenge would be the purity tests of the GOP primaries. He’d face the same skepticism from social conservatives wary of his faith and Tea Partiers who don’t think he’s a genuine conservative. He’d face at least one tougher opponent speaking for this group this time in Sen. Ted Cruz, who has pointed to Romney’s nomination as proof that the party loses when it picks candidates with malleable principles. Cruz also has a special and enduring aversion to the Affordable Care Act, which would keep Romney discussing (and dodging) his Massachusetts health care plan, a topic over which he usually stumbles.

Romney also faces high hurdles on the immigration issue. A recent Gallup poll shows Republican voters care about the issue above all others. Romney supported “self-deportation,” which would be an awkward position in 2016. On the one hand, it makes him Ann Coulter’s favorite candidate; on the other hand, he won’t ever hire anyone who thinks that being Ann Coulter’s favorite candidate is a good thing—and he almost certainly doesn’t believe it himself. When people refer to “self-deportation” these days, it is usually an example of a terrible mistake. It shows how candidates lunge to extremes that irrevocably harm the party in the general election. That was the position of the authors of the GOP autopsy report commissioned after the Romney loss.

So what would Romney do? Does he change his position and face charges that he supports amnesty—which would be the response to any perceived moderation? Or, does he stick with his position on “self-deportation” and face upset from the wealthy moderates who are most supportive of him? No matter which way he goes, he risks reanimating the Romney-as-changeling story that so dogged him in his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. 

Romney’s other big problem is his starring role in the “47 percent” video, in which he suggested that the portion of America that wasn’t going to vote for him wouldn’t do so because it was addicted to government programs. Overcoming that video is a challenge that spans both the primary and general election. In the general election, his Democratic opponent will constantly hammer him as the Obama team did, raising questions about whether he really cares about the problems of middle-class families. Whether an opponent would again be successful in characterizing him this way is only part of the challenge. In a primary, voters would have to weigh whether carrying that kind of self-inflicted wound into the general election would make him a flawed candidate they shouldn’t even bother elevating in the first place. 

The chatter about Romney 2016 presents a fascinating question to a candidate who is so highly valued for his business experience. One of Romney’s tasks in the private sector was understanding long-term trends and differentiating them from the impulses of the moment. He, above all others, knows that regardless of what the elites in GOP fundraising circles say, presidential campaigns have little to do with evaluating candidates on whether they have the actual skills required for the job. So if Romney decides to run, he will face the same maddening competition that ground him up last time. If he goes ahead anyway, the decision could very well call into question the attribute that makes him an attractive president.