Much to the surprise of those who thought Mitt Romney was done with presidential politics after failing to defeat Barack Obama’s bid for reelection, the 2012 Republican nominee is indicating that he is running again. Last Friday’s announcement to supporters that he is seriously considering jumping into the fray for 2016 was necessitated by Jeb Bush’s recent announcement. Any further delay would have been fatal to his hopes as Bush is rapidly working to secure the support of major financial donors from the party’s establishment faction who might otherwise be expected to give to Romney. This will alter the course of the battle for the nomination, but what we need to unpack today is the rationale for each candidate and the nature of the critiques these two not dissimilar heavyweight contenders are making of each other. What many Republicans who are sympathetic to both men must admit is that they are both right about each other.
If reports about Romney’s statements to his past and perhaps future backers are true, the former Massachusetts governor thinks Bush isn’t the right candidate to defeat Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in 2016. Romney believes that it is foolish for the GOP to ask Americans to vote a third member of the same immediate family into the White House within a span of three decades especially after the way George W. Bush limped out of the presidency in January 2009 in the wake of the Iraq War and a financial collapse. Though there is no indication that he has any personal dislike for Jeb or any of the Bush clan, he also seems to think Jeb faces the same liability for his participation in the investment world. The Romney camp believes Bush faces severe challenges in his quest for the nomination because of his support for the Common Core education program and his more liberal approach to immigration reform.
Even more to the point, Romney may believe any Republican who runs against the base, as Bush has seemed to signal that he will do, is not likely to be able to beat back the challenge from Tea Party and other conservative contenders that would be less electable in November.
But those criticisms are matched by Bush’s thinking about a third try by Romney for the White House. Jeb and his backers see another Romney candidacy as exactly what the party doesn’t need. Romney had his chance and failed, in no small measure because he was a poor retail politician who lacked the ability to tell his own very good story convincingly or to defend himself against smears about his business career. Indeed, Bush’s early steps taken toward the nomination—including resignation from corporate boards, the massive early release of his emails while governor, and ten years of tax returns—indicate that he has studied Romney’s campaign closely and has no intention of making the same mistakes. He also believes that Romney’s pandering to the party base during the primaries helped sew the seeds of his defeat in November, leading him to think that the only path to victory for Republicans lies in nominating someone with a strong conservative record who is nevertheless willing to take centrist stands.
These are strong arguments, but the problem for Republicans listening to their respective appeals is that both men are right.
Romney understands all too well the difficulty of trying to arouse the base if is convinced the party’s candidate doesn’t represent their views. The assumption that the establishment candidate always wins in the end may be unfounded in 2016 when a far more formidable array of conservatives will be running. And though the reputation of George W. Bush has risen considerably during the six miserable years of the Obama presidency, he’s also not wrong to assert that there is something profoundly unsettling about the GOP embracing a political dynasty of this sort. If the Democrats are, as seems almost certain, going to nominate a Clinton, the Republicans’ best opportunity should be with a talented and fresh face, not another Bush, albeit one that is as talented and serious as Jeb. Though his name is famous, we also don’t know how well Jeb will do under the pressures of a presidential campaign since he has never personally done it before.
Nor is it clear that even Bush’s attempts to forestall or pre-empt a Democrat assault on his character will succeed since that party’s attack machine will be primed and ready to smear no matter what he does to prevent it. Having already been thoroughly slimed by the Obama reelection campaign, it is possible to argue that Romney won’t be as badly hurt by another round of low blows. Indeed, having lost gamely while battling long odds and making assertions that were subsequently proven to be true, Romney may start out the race with a degree of sympathy from the mainstream media accorded no other Republican (even if it is likely that those good feelings will disappear once it’s clear he is running again).
But Bush is also right that another Romney run is unlikely to yield a better result than the last attempt. Bush may not be the freshest face on the Republican bench, but it is surely fresher than that of a man making his third run for the presidency. Presidential fever is something that few politicians get over and Romney’s decision to run seems motivated as much by ambition as any genuine belief that no other Republican can win. Even if he has absorbed some of the lessons of his defeat, no amount of analysis can fix Romney’s basic defects as a candidate. We all know he is a very good man but it requires a considerable suspension of disbelief to think that he will be a better or wiser candidate in 2016 than he was in 2012 or 2008.
So where does that leave the GOP?
Having Romney and Bush both in the race will make it harder for anyone else to run in the hidden establishment primary, meaning that a Chris Christie candidacy is looking like even more of a long shot than it did a few weeks ago. It also ought to encourage conservatives to jump in since it will mean there will be no repeat of the 2008 and 2012 races where a single well-funded moderate was able to overwhelm a split conservative faction. The presence of Romney makes the race even more unpredictable and should tempt figures like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who combines Tea Party support with stands that endear him to the establishment to think that perhaps 2016 will be a year in which a non-establishment candidate who is not considered a bomb-thrower can win.
But most of all, the entry of Romney into the race will mean a tremendous struggle for the hearts and minds of the GOP center. Having gotten in first and with his family’s network behind him as well as having the support of many other establishment types, Bush must be considered as having the edge until proven otherwise. But he must also worry that the two will ultimately knock each other off and let someone new, whether or not they are more electable, have a chance.