the national interest

I Refuse to Believe Romney ’16 Is Real

BELMONT, MA - MARCH 06: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looks on during a press availability after voting at the Beech Street Senior Center on March 6, 2012 in Belmont, Massachusetts. Mitt Romney cast his ballot for the Super Tuesday primary in Massachusetts before attending his Super Tuesday gathering. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Photo: Justin Sullivan/2012 Getty Images

When the Washington Post reported last Friday that Mitt Romney had assembled donors and told them he wants to be president, I refused to believe it. Then the Post reported last night that Romney has said he “almost certainly will” run for president. I still don’t believe it. I don’t care how many people he tells. Nothing could convince me that Romney will actually run for president, not even Romney taking the oath of office. My reasoning here is that another Romney candidacy would be insane, and Romney is not insane.

During the last presidential cycle, I insisted repeatedly that Mitt Romney stood almost no chance of capturing the Republican nomination, though the competition dragged on for months, and he nearly lost states like Michigan and Ohio even though his only remotely legitimate competition, Rick Perry, imploded well before the first primary. Given that Romney struggled for weeks to put away Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who were running to build a talk-show audience under the guise of a presidential campaign, and then proceeded to soundly lose the general election, it is hard to fathom the logic of Romney joining the race against what appears to be a vastly more formidable array of opponents.

Why would Republicans, who grudgingly submitted to a Romney nomination in 2012 only after every other possibility had exhausted itself, give him another try when so many alternatives are available? What qualities would make a Romney candidacy more attractive to Republican voters in 2016 than it was in 2012? Well, he does have more practice under his belt, it is true. They could save money on design and campaign paraphernalia. (Alas, some short-sighted and faithless Romney supporters donated Romney campaign swag to underprivileged Africans, but the underprivileged Africans could probably be persuaded to give their Romney swag back, or at least sell it back very cheap.) No other significant advantages present themselves.

On the other side of the ledger, one can think of numerous ways that Romney has made himself less attractive. The obvious one is by losing. It is a political cliché that Democrats embrace their losing candidates while Republicans disdain theirs. This cliché may be a statistical fluke born of a low sample size, but it perfectly fits a party whose philosophical ethos in general venerates winners and savages losers. The post-election savaging of Romney was widespread and totalistic, ranging from his inept polling and campaign mechanics to his political philosophy. Even Jennifer Rubin, the political commentator most consistently loyal to Romney in the last cycle, has turned against him.

There is no evidence that Romney has learned to suppress the traits that made him a figure of ridicule in 2012. In a room that turned out to be secretly recorded, he famously and devastatingly wrote off half of America as pathetic moochers. Supporters gamely argued that Romney did not actually believe the things he said and was merely pandering to their prejudices. Romney proceeded to nullify this defense by saying more or less the same thing again after the election.

It is possible that Romney, whose clumsy pandering to the right included labeling himself a “severe conservative,” has learned to pander a bit more deftly. This remains to be seen. The Post reports, “Romney has signaled to conservatives that, should he enter the race, he shares their views on immigration and on taxes.” The construction of this sentence is fascinating. It does not say that Romney shares conservative beliefs on immigration and taxes. Instead it states that he will share them “should he enter the race.” The implication, of course, is that he may not share them if he decides not to run.

And what about the Romney campaign’s inept management of polling, technology, ad spending, and other campaign mechanics? Romney advisers assure Politico that these failures amount to arguments in favor of rather than against another Romney candidacy. The best way to avoid reprising Romney’s blunders is to restore the people most intimately aware of them — i.e., the ones who committed them in the first place. One adviser says, “having a team that knows where the pitfalls are, we could be 30 percent more efficient.” Another explains, “The value for the Obama campaign in ‘12 was the muscle memory,” explains one adviser — that is, returning the veterans of Obama’s (successful, well-run) campaign provides similar benefits to returning veterans of Romney’s (unsuccessful, poorly run) campaign.

There is also the messaging problem. And, of course, as a candidate, Romney warned that if President Obama was reelected, the United States would face chronic high unemployment and “fiscal calamity.” Accordingly, he promised to get the unemployment rate below 6 percent by the end of his term. That was a conveniently attainable target if Romney won. Unfortunately, since he lost, unemployment has already fallen below that level and continues to drop. Romney’s sole advantage, his self-styled persona as a business guru who can get under the hood and fix the American economy, would seem to have little remaining credibility.

Eight years ago, John Kerry briefly considered another run for president, after also having failed to oust an incumbent despised by his own party’s base and mistaking the outpouring of commitment on his behalf as an expression of personal loyalty, rather than the partisan loyalty it actually was. Soon enough, Kerry came to his senses. Romney will, too.

He has to, right? Right?