When Mitt Romney told radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt that there was a “one in a million” shot that he would run again for president, the 2012 Republican nominee probably thought he was, once again, shooting down speculation about him considering a 2016 run. But by prefacing it with the words “circumstances can change,” Romney gave pundits enough to restart speculation about his intentions. Those claiming that Romney is reconsidering his plans are almost certainly wrong. But the reason why so many are talking about this tells us a lot more about the GOP’s problems than it does about Romney.
That even a savvy political junkie like Chuck Todd would bite on this story and say on MSNBC’s Morning Rundown show today that Romney’s statement “opens the door a crack” to a 2016 run illustrates a few things.
The first is that once the Democratic attack machine that spent a solid year sliming Romney shut down it was possible for a lot of people to start noticing that Romney was not the cartoon villain his opponents claimed him to be. His decency, good humor, and competency look even better because of the ongoing disaster that Barack Obama’s second term has been. After a year and a half of ineptitude, scandals, and foreign-policy disasters, the national buyer’s remorse about giving Obama another four years has softened Romney’s image and given him a legitimacy that the president’s cheering section in the mainstream media denied him when he was a candidate.
But it must also be admitted that one of the reasons so many people continue to try and raise Romney’s name is that none of the likely Republican contenders for 2016 have yet eclipsed the 2012 nomine.
Bridgegate derailed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s 2016 juggernaut. Senator Marco Rubio, who seemed the party’s savior at the end of 2012, has had some ups and downs with respect to immigration and sometimes gave the impression that he wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Jeb Bush appears unlikely to buck his mother’s advice and probably won’t run. Governor Scott Walker is in the fight of his life seeking reelection in Wisconsin. Many in the national party don’t take Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal seriously as a presidential prospect. Senator Ted Cruz is loved by the Tea Party but hated by everyone else in the Senate and viewed as likely to be a disaster in a general election.
Rick Santorum would like the GOP to continue its tradition of nominating the runner-up from the previous primary battle, but he’s finding that most Republicans are as apathetic about his candidacy now as they were before 2012.
The one candidate who has gained ground in the last two years is Senator Rand Paul, who has expanded the libertarian base of his extremist father and shown himself to be a savvy politician even if his isolationist policies are being exposed as ill suited to the times by events in the Middle East. But while it must be conceded that Paul has a plausible chance to be the nominee, mainstream Republican opposition to him remains fierce.
All of which leaves some on the right wondering if they might not be better off trying Romney again. In a more rational world, saying that there’s a one-in-a-million shot of something happening would be interpreted as proof that it won’t, but we are discussing politics, not reason. Yet leaving aside the fact that Romney has made it perfectly clear that he won’t run again, there are good reasons why he shouldn’t even if the former Massachusetts governor changes his mind.
First and foremost is the fact that, as Romney has repeatedly said, he already tried and lost. It’s been nearly 50 years since one of the parties nominated a candidate that had already lost a general election to run for president. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but the odds are it won’t. Were Romney to start making real noises about running, the new respect he’s earned in the media would evaporate and Democrats would restart their smear campaigns about his faith and his business experience. He may have been right about the threat from Russia and much else in 2012, but don’t expect anyone in the media to remember that if he intended to run again.
More to the point, a Romney candidacy would throw away the one clear advantage the Republicans have going into the 2016 race. Any Republican running against Hillary Clinton is going to seem like a fresh-faced outsider in comparison to that veteran of more than 20 years of Washington political infighting. Anyone, that is, other than Romney. In spite of his ability to raise money and the trust he has earned from many on the right because of his dogged underdog fight against Obama, Romney would come across as a tired, if likeable retread. That isn’t going to be a winning formula against the person who will be touted as America’s potential first female president.
Republicans, especially conservatives, have good reason to feel some remorse about Romney. Many of them spent most of 2012 trashing him as a RINO instead of doing everything they could to help him beat Obama. That wasn’t the reason he lost. The odds against any Republican going up against the first African-American president were always almost insurmountable and once the economic tailspin in late 2011 turned into the more stable situation of 2012, Obama’s reelection was probably guaranteed. The awful reality of an Obama second term has inspired a surprising amount of nostalgia for Romney’s gallant efforts. But that’s no substitute for a competent and competitive 2016 candidate.
Republicans need to re-focus on their party’s deep bench. All of the possible GOP candidates will be underdogs against Clinton. But there are many with genuine promise and there’s plenty of time for them to hit their stride in the next two years. Romney deserves the love he’s belatedly getting from Republicans, but looking forward rather than backward is the GOP’s only path to victory in 2016.