Mitt Romney Can’t Save the GOP

The Republican establishment is getting nervous. But it is deluded if it thinks Mittens can bail them out.

Mitt Romney Upbeat.
Mitt Romney on the Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon on March 25, 2015, in New York City.

Photo by Theo Wargo/NBC/Getty Images

The Republican establishment is getting quite antsy. For some reason, the rubes refuse to fall in line.

The Washington Post reports on the “growing anxiety bordering on panic among Republican elites about the dominance and durability of Donald Trump and Ben Carson.” These “leaders and donors” fear, quite reasonably, that the nomination of either outsider would not just secure Democrats a third consecutive presidential election victory, but also hamstring Republicans’ ability to retain the Senate and possibly the House. And they no longer have the time of day for those smart-set types who insist that the laws of political gravity will take care of the Trump and Carson problem in the end.

Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean Sr., an establishmentarian’s establishmentarian, openly frets about how the people who serve him refuse to get over this Trump funny business. “[GOP power brokers] assure me that Trump and Carson will eventually fade,” Kean tells the Post. “Then we’ll talk some more, and I give them a reality check. I’ll say, ‘The guy in the grocery store likes Trump. So does the guy who cuts my hair. They’re probably going to stick with him. Who knows if this ends?’ ” Ah, one longs for the good old days, when elites could resolve their problems with the working class by summoning the Pinkertons or exercising the cat o’ nine tails.

If Trump and Carson won’t dispatch themselves, hard as they may try, then who will? Some GOP elites believe they’ve found the answer. Like most times GOP grandees believe they’ve found a silver bullet—e.g. Let’s give Jeb Bush $100 million upfront!—it is delusional.

“According to other Republicans, some in the party establishment are so desperate to change the dynamic that they are talking anew about drafting [Mitt] Romney—despite his insistence that he will not run again,” the Post reports. “Friends have mapped out a strategy for a late entry to pick up delegates and vie for the nomination in a convention fight, according to the Republicans who were briefed on the talks, though Romney has shown no indication of reviving his interest.”

Oh, sure, these Romney trial balloons keep popping up, but Romney himself must have absolutely no interest. What a coincidence that, just as the establishment begins to gravitate toward Sen. Marco Rubio, the Romney people step in to say that the field is in disarray and only Romney can save it. It’s almost like, just as the establishment appears to be moving beyond Romney, Romney’s “loyalists” step in to reassure them that only Mittens can save the party. The man still wants to be president, and he wants to be drafted.

How, precisely, does Mitt Romney solve the establishment’s Trump and Carson problem? Though Romney, like all politicians, looks better in retrospect now that he’s exited politics, the same flaws he faced last time—his cultural disconnect with the base of the party, his stiffness, his patrician demeanor and background—would reassert themselves the second he entered. But sure, he seems like a nice guy otherwise.

The problem is not with the candidates. Rubio, like Romney in 2012, is broadly acceptable policywise to enough of the party’s key factions to win a majority of delegates. Romney was a talented debater; Rubio is an excellent debater. Rubio is not easily caricaturized as a plutocrat, and he does not have a business record that included firing thousands of workers to crank up shareholder value. Rubio is also Hispanic and hails from a critical swing state. It’s not clear how far that would get him as the nominee for a party that has torched its relationship with Hispanics, but it would probably get him further than Romney.

The antsy establishment won’t like to hear this, but its best bet is just to keep faith that those laws of political gravity assert themselves and Trump and Carson collapse. Quick looks at Carson’s biography have already produced plenty of questions about his relationship with the truth, and he cannot speak about major public policy issues with any coherence. Trump, meanwhile, appears to be in full The Producers mode right now, trying desperately to savage his own campaign and return to managing his real estate empire. He is asking why Iowans are so “stupid”—in Iowa! Maybe that’ll do him in? More likely, it will somehow shoot him up to 50 percent in the first caucus state. The poor guy looks exhausted. What does he have to do to lose this thing? He, too, has to rely on political gravity—that the nearer the calendar comes to actual voting, all those grocers and barbers who take care of Tom Kean Sr. will snap out of it.

It’s worth asking these elites why they’re so surprised that they haven’t been able to work their will this cycle. They’ve spent the past seven years funding and feeding off of whatever rage exists on the right in order to stop President Obama’s legislative agenda and to win low-turnout midterm election cycles. What’s funnier? How they’re stunned that the rabble no longer responds to them, or that some of them believe Mitt Romney is the answer?

See more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.