Ever since the news broke last Friday that Mitt Romney is not only thinking about running for president again in 2016 but also making moves that suggest he is going to run, I’ve been trying to figure out why. I’ve talked to Republicans who are close to Romney and Republicans who are only interested observers.
For people outside of Romney’s direct orbit, there is bafflement about what Romney is doing. Closer allies explain, without their names attached, why Romney running again isn’t as odd as it is being portrayed. “Lots of people get elected to governor or senator on their third try,” said one Romney supporter urging the former governor to run. “Nothing magical about that not being a presidential.”
Those conversations — and my own thinking — have produced three basic reasons to explain why Romney is doing what he is doing:
1. He doesn’t believe Jeb Bush is a terribly strong candidate/frontrunner.
2. He doesn’t think anyone in the current field can beat Hillary Clinton.
3. He believes he has something more/new/different to offer the country at a critical moment in history.
Numbers one and two are, of course, intricately linked. Romney doesn’t like Bush’s public critique of the sort of campaign he ran in 2012 and believes that Bush drastically misunderstands how the modern political world works. Bush, who has not run for any office since 2002, has deep vulnerabilities on the work — from finance to education — that he has done since leaving office, Romney believes. And, Bush simply doesn’t understand (or doesn’t want to understand) the problems he has on that front.
And if you believe, as Romney does, that Bush is much weaker than most people — including many Republican donors — currently regard him, then the prospect of a Clinton presidency seems very real. “Romney is only person who is beating anybody thinking about running in both parties,” said one Romney supporter. “He only beats Hillary by a point or two but still, if you are beating everyone and can raise money, that’s not a reason to run but it’s certainly not a reason not to run.”
Fair enough. It is absolutely true that Bush remains largely untested in the world of Vine, Instagram and Twitter on the campaign trail. And that his gubernatorial — and, more importantly, post-gubernatorial — record has not taken anywhere near the scrutiny it will if/when he runs. And that Romney is a proven fundraiser and vote-getter.
It’s that third point, though, that Romney, according to those who know him best, sees as most important — and on which he and I part ways.
“There is something in Mitt that drives him to solve problems,” explained one Romney confidante of the governor’s mindset. “When he sees something is a mess, he doesn’t have it in his DNA to sit back and let someone else just try to clean it up.”
Added another: “He believes he can help the country and help people.”
I don’t doubt Romney’s sincerity. But I do think he and those close to him are fooling themselves that he can simply proclaim that he is running a new and different campaign — one based on foreign policy and poverty, according to Politico — and that will be that.
It’s literally impossible to imagine such a scenario. The reason Romney is in the position he is — nationally known, a massive fundraising network — is because of his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Those are the pluses of having run twice before. But there are also significant minuses in having done so. Does Romney think either his Republican opponents or potentially Hillary Clinton in a general election are going to just let the whole “47 percent” thing drop? Or that the car elevator, “severely conservative” and the picture of him with money coming out of his suit jacket are going to disappear?
Um, they won’t. The second Romney declares — and, even now as he moves toward a candidacy — all of the things people didn’t like about him will start to creep back to the front of their minds. The image of him as an out-of-touch plutocrat, which the Obama team so effectively painted, will linger no matter what Romney says or does as a candidate. And unlike in 2012 when he was seen as the de facto frontrunner due to his close-but-no-cigar bid in 2008, the logic for why he would choose to run again in 2016 would make him a puzzle in the eyes of many Republican primary voters. People don’t usually vote for puzzles.
There’s no question that Romney feels a call to service and believes that he is uniquely able to solve the problems of the GOP and the country at the moment. But the assumption that he can pluck the good things from his past candidacies while wiping away all the bad stuff from voters’ minds is a deeply flawed reading of how politics works. And it’s why it makes little sense for Romney to run again.
Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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