After a prolonged — and purposeful — absence from the national spotlight, Mitt Romney reemerged earlier this week in New Hampshire at a fundraiser to benefit the state party. And, he even made some news — urging his party not to pursue a government shutdown for fear of the political repercussions.
Romney will “begin to engage more politically helping longtime friends and supporters when he is asked,” said one ally, granted anonymity to speak candidly. ”Mitt will occasionally speak out on issues be cares deeply about and thinks are significant, but he won’t seek to comment on every news cycle.”
The Romney reemergence, such as it is, got us to thinking about what his ultimate legacy in Republican politics will be.
Seeking answers, we asked a handful of smart GOP strategist types — a few who had some direct affiliation with Romney, most who didn’t. Opinions varied — as they almost always have when it comes to the former Massachusetts governor.
Count Ed Rollins in the camp of skeptics when it comes to Romney’s lasting impact on the party.
“He is our Dukakis,” said Rollins, referring to the Massachusetts governor who lost the 1988 presidential race. “[Romney's] legacy is a decent man who ran a lackluster campaign while spending enormous monies and lost to a president most Republicans and pundits thought was vulnerable.”
From “47 percent” to his inability to connect with or excite people on the campaign trail to allowing President Obama’s campaign to define him as an out-of-touch elitist, many of the GOP strategist types we spoke to echoed Rollins’s general sentiment — if not as harshly (or on the record) as he did.
Others, including Matt McDonald, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies and a former Romney aide, insisted that the former governor will be more than simply an asterisk in the history books.
“I think people underestimate the help that he can be behind the scenes to future candidates,” said McDonald. “I think [George W. Bush] has provided an impressive example of how much can be done behind the scenes, and Mitt has a great analytical mind that can be a powerful help to the next slate of potential leaders.”
Of course, much of a politician’s legacy depends on how willing the person is to work at finessing it once off the national stage. George H.W. Bush, for example, is someone whose legacy has grown — in a good way — because of the work he did after he lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton, too, has largely aided his political legacy by his active involvement in both Democratic campaigns and humanitarian efforts since leaving office. (The exception to that rule for Clinton was his campaigning on behalf of his wife in 2008, which took some of the shine off his reputation.)
Romney seems genuinely uninterested in remaining a public figure going forward. In Post reporter Dan Balz’s excellent book documenting the 2012 campaign, it’s clear that Romney had real doubts about running for president a second time. When coupled with his defeat last November, it’s not hard to see him avoiding the political circuit.
Given all that, Romney’s best chance to cement — or build — a political legacy, according to GOP insiders, is on the fundraising front.
By all accounts, Romney’s fundraising operation — overseen by Spencer Zwick — was the single best element of his campaign and the one that the candidate excelled at most. The results are hard to argue with; Romney raised better than $1 billion for the 2012 campaign. The only other candidate to do that in American history? President Obama, also in the 2012 campaign.
“His legacy will probably be how can a future nominee replicate his fundraising effort,” mused one former Romney senior staffer. Added McDonald: “It is a similar question to Obama’s digital and analytics capabilities in terms of how much of that fundraising capability transfers to the party.”
Romney’s legacy, such as it is, then rests largely on whether he is willing and/or able to guide the party’s next nominee to the financial heights to which he ascended. The “47 percent” comments and the broader missed opportunity that he represents for many Republicans will always be there, too. The question is how much (or little) Romney is willing to do now that he is off the national stage to put a more positive twist on his legacy in the making.