The editors of the Wall Street Journal greeted the possibility of a third Mitt Romney bid for the Presidency in 2016 with a piece entitled “Romney Recycled.” They’re not big fans of this sort of recycling. The opening paragraphs are a more elegant way of asking, “What the hell is he thinking?”
If Mitt Romney is the answer, what is the question? We can think of a few worthy possibilities, though one that doesn’t come immediately to mind is who would be the best Republican presidential nominee in 2016.
Mr. Romney told donors last week he is mulling a third run for the White House, confirming cheering whispers from his coterie of advisers. The question the former Massachusetts Governor will have to answer is why he would be a better candidate than he was in 2012.
The answer is not obvious. The logic offered by his admirers is that voters have a case of remorse about rejecting Mr. Romney in 2012, he can raise money and knows how to run a campaign, and even Ronald Reagan didn’t win until his third try.
The Journal dispenses with the Reagan analogy first, noting that Reagan cultivated a rising tide of support and enthusiasm during his successive runs for the White House, while Romney lost one primary and one general election despite having massive resources and GOP Establishment support. Perhaps the most important difference between Reagan and Romney is that the former did a masterful job of selling himself, and his ideas; it just took a while for him to close the sale. Romney couldn’t close that sale even with every advantage imaginable – money, organization, and an electorate that wasn’t enthusiastic about giving Barack Obama a second term.
In fact, as the Journal goes on to note, Romney’s 2012 campaign basically undercut his resume of managerial accomplishment, while demonstrating that he couldn’t find a way to win substantial popular support by emphasizing his remarkable personal integrity:
Mr. Romney is a man of admirable personal character, but his political profile is, well, protean. He made the cardinal mistake of pandering to conservatives rather than offering a vision that would attract them. He claimed to be “severely conservative” and embraced “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants, a political killer. But he refused to break from his RomneyCare record in Massachusetts even though it undermined his criticism of ObamaCare. A third campaign would resurrect all of that political baggage—and videotape.
The businessman also failed on his own self-professed terms as a superior manager. His convention was the worst since George H.W. Bush ’s in 1992, focusing more on his biography than a message. This left him open to President Obama ’s barrage against his record at Bain Capital, which Mr. Romney failed to defend because that would have meant playing on Democratic turf, as his strategists liked to put it. The unanswered charges suppressed GOP turnout in key states like Ohio.
Mr. Romney’s campaign team was notable for its mediocrities, led by a strategist whose theory of the race was that voters had already rejected Mr. Obama so the challenger merely needed to seem like a safe alternative. He thus never laid out an economic narrative to counter Mr. Obama’s claim that he had saved the country from a GOP Depression and needed more time for his solutions to work.
And don’t forget the management calamity of Mr. Romney’s voter turnout operation, code-named Orca. Mr. Romney likes to say he reveres “data,” but Mr. Obama’s campaign was years ahead of Mr. Romney’s in using Big Data and social media to boost turnout. The Romney campaign was so clueless on voter mobilization that well into Election Night the candidate still thought he would win. He lost a winnable race 51%-47%, including every closely contested state save North Carolina.
Those are all sharp points. It’s frankly a little surprising that the Republican donor class isn’t thinking harder about Romney’s strategic and managerial failures. The Project ORCA debacle was a tragedy for the ages, an almost incomprehensible blunder that left Romney’s ground forces paralyzed on Election Day. If the race had been a bit tighter – and it should have been – ORCA would have cost Romney the presidency all by itself. And yet, creating and implementing such systems successfully was a major bullet point on the Romney resume – it’s the sort of thing he’s supposed to excel at.
The Wall Street Journal is far too cursory in its treatment of Romney’s human-connection problem. To be blunt, Mitt Romney is one of the most capable and humane people ever to run for the Oval Office, but he couldn’t find a way to leverage his remarkable biography to win affection from voters. Not only does he donate staggering sums of money to charity, he personally put himself at the disposal of people in dire need, time and again throughout his life – from rescuing swimmers to assisting the search for a colleague’s kidnapped daughter, the man was practically a super-hero. However, most Americans knew little of his charitable deeds until a brief segment near the end of the Republican National Convention, and much of the goodwill his personal compassion earned from general-election voters was vaporized by Team Obama’s vicious assault on venture capitalism, and some of Romney’s infelicitous comments, most notably the leaked video of his “47 percent” speech to donors. Every student of politics should be familiar with the exit-poll tombstone of the Romney 2012 campaign, in which the Republican candidate trounced Obama in every category except “likability,” where the victorious Obama obliterated Romney.
To restate the point, Romney wasn’t good at selling either himself or his ideas, even to a receptive audience with grave doubts about Obama’s performance. “Likability” is the new metric for measuring character, the electorate having been decisively persuaded to drop its last traditional measurements during the Clinton years. The various components of likability, especially the fabled “understands middle class life” or “knows what it’s like to be me” measurements of perceived empathy, are a combined assessment of the candidate and the image he projects of his party platform.
Romney also didn’t handle himself well at all against the Democrat attack machine. Team Obama described its strategy in a candid moment as “Kill Romney,” and by gum, they killed him. His team seemed perpetually surprised by every below-the-belt attack, as if waiting for some imaginary team of campaign referees to start throwing yellow flags. Romney’s squad didn’t even seem prepared for the most obvious attacks, such as Obama’s assault on venture capital, or the obsessive focus on Romney’s tax returns. In 2016, Republican voters may have several alternatives with a proven track record of taking the best shot Democrats can dish out, such as Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who repeatedly triumphed over everything from media bias and union money, to corrupt Democrat officials weaponizing their agencies against him.
Romney may argue that he’s learned his lesson and improved his pitch, but it’s difficult to revise the strong impressions created during a presidential campaign. He might even suggest that his likability factor will be less of an issue if he’s running against the profoundly unlikable Hillary Clinton, but this would be a grave underestimation of how aggressively the media will sell Hillary (the entertainment industry is already preparing the battlespace for her with TV shows featuring ostensibly Hillary-esque heroines!) and she might not be the candidate anyway. No matter who the Democrats run, if they’re cobbling together a platform based on populist appeals and “free stuff” giveaways, Mitt Romney is the Republican they want to run against.
The Wall Street Journal is skeptical of Romney’s ability to learn the right lessons from 2012:
Mr. Romney’s post-election diagnosis also doesn’t inspire confidence that he has learned the right lessons. He said Mr. Obama won because he promised “extraordinary financial gifts” to voters. “It’s a proven political strategy,” Mr. Romney said. “Giving away free stuff is a hard thing to compete with.” Maybe so, but if he can’t sell a larger message of growth and opportunity, he won’t defeat Hillary Clinton ’s gifts either.
Let’s be honest about one more thing: voters simply do not like admitting they made a mistake. “Romney Was Right” is a slogan that understandably gained currency throughout the long, agonizing string of Obama second-term disasters and scandals, and it’s a wave of sentiment that can prove quite useful to Republicans in 2016… but Romney himself is not in a position to take advantage of it. Voting against “Obama’s third term” is one thing; actively conceding that Obama’s second term was a hideous mistake is too much to ask of voters, even when a great many of them feel that way. It’s not the sort of feeling voters relish putting into words, or explicit votes.
For an undeclared candidate lugging the baggage of a failed previous bid, Romney is doing quite well in the early “shadow primary” among Republican power brokers and donors. The Washington Times reports “it’s been a good week so far – and promises to get even better – for Mitt Romney, according to some Republican National Committee members gathered at their annual winter meeting in San Diego.” Romney suddenly began assembling a campaign team, secured some plum speaking engagements with RNC members, and saw his 2012 running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), appointed as head of the RNC’s 2016 Presidential Trust. The only potential 2016 rivals vying for attention at the RNC winter meeting were Governors Rick Perry and Scott Walker, plus possible outsider candidate Ben Carson.
The Tampa Bay Times further notes that Romney has begun contacting important donors in Jeb Bush’s home state of Florida, a “signal that he’s serious” which obviously “sets up a clash between two of the most well-known figures in Republican politics.” It’s also not welcome news for another potential 2016 candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Clearly Romney is putting out feelers. He knows who he has to beat the shadow primary among Republican kingmakers, and he knows how to do it.
Those kingmakers should do some hard thinking about the ceiling on Romney’s appeal to anyone outside their circle – from conservative media figures, to Republican base voters, to the general electorate. Unfortunately, the Republican establishment never seems to learn its lesson about the folly of dragging either conservatives or swing voters into the booth on Election Day to vote for The Other Guy. With all due respect for his remarkable achievements, Mitt Romney is the quintessential Other Guy.