The Jeb Bush team seems entirely blasé about any impact that Romney may have on its fundraising. Top Bush advisers concede that Romney would certainly have an impact on the field, but they remain skeptical that he is running. In any event, they are confident that many supporters who were part of the Bush network long before Romney’s 2012 run will stick with Bush.
Romney, if he runs, may be the death knell of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential ambitions. If both Bush and Romney are in the race, it is hard to imagine that Christie would find the support, money and votes to knock them both out.
Whichever way Romney is going, he should stop the Hamlet act and decide — run or not. Staff up or not. Allow other interested candidates to jump in or not. But agonizing over a decision is both unfair to the rest of the party and suggestive of precisely the same campaign mindset that took 22 sign-offs for a tweet. If he cannot be decisive and quick about getting into the race, how is he going to be decisive and fleet-footed enough to run a successful race this time around?
On one level, another Romney run is preposterous. In 2012, he not only put together an unwieldy and incompetent campaign, but he also dug his own grave again and again with comments that allowed the Democrats to portray him as out of touch and unfeeling. His staffers, as bad as they might have been, did not dismiss 47 percent of the country as moochers. Being right in 2012 and being the best of a weak field does not mean Romney would be the best of the lot in 2016 or Hillary Clinton’s equal — even with an entirely new cast of advisers.
It is also the case that his premise for challenging the current field does not lead to the conclusion that he would be the party’s best choice. If the Bush name is a burden, too likely to lead to negative “dynasty” chatter and too much about the past — and Republicans need someone new, fresh and with no sense of entitlement — why in the world would the party go back to Mitt Romney, who has been running for president since about 2006? Romney’s critique of Bush — if it is true — leads to the conclusion that the party would be better off with a governor who has not worn out his welcome on the national stage.
If — and it’s a big if — Romney were to be talked into running, he would have to explain to donors and voters that he understood what went wrong in 2012, that he was clearing the decks and that he was retooling his message. He would need to recognize that part of the problem was him. If he is talking about bringing back a lot of old faces, donors would be wise to tell him to forget it. He would have to run as he never has — as the candidate of the employees, not the entrepreneurs, as an empathetic figure and champion of opportunity and as no friend of Wall Street. He would have to run not as being right about President Obama — which Republican wasn’t? — but with the right persona and message for the future. Unless he is able to explain not how he was right, but what he got wrong and how he has changed, both donors and activists would be foolish to give him the time of day.
But how exactly would this Romney 3.0 work? He is still the very rich guy lacking the common touch, still the guy who thinks the greatest contribution to mankind is a lower marginal rate on capital gains and still a pol to whom most Americans find it hard to relate. And frankly, if he suddenly morphs into a populist and does an about-face on past policies, old questions about his sincerity will reappear. (What am I, you ask? Well, that depends on what you want me to be.)
This, in turn, raises another problematic issue: If the 2012 Romney gang is going to be banished (it would have to be for Romney to be taken seriously), who is he going to get to run a 21st-century campaign? Truth be told, the generation of consultants and operatives who came of age in the George W. Bush years are too old, backward-looking and/or associated with losing campaigns to get the job done, but the next generation of talent is small and less experienced at the presidential level. Many of the big names are already signed up with candidates or have left presidential campaigning for other endeavors. Who will Romney get, and can he create from scratch a team when many other more contemporary figures are already grabbing up the best talent?
And finally, Romney, it is reported, is talking about adhering to the same anti-immigration-reform, self-deportation stance that led him to win only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. This is back to the future for the GOP, reverting to a message directed at an electorate (old, white, male) that is shrinking. If he also is going to run against gay marriage, he can forget the millennial vote as well. Romney represents precisely the model that has led the GOP to defeat. It is not a flawed model because he is some squishy moderate. It is flawed because he is a flawed candidate, a 1950s throwback. He is a black-and-white TV in a brightly colored, digital age. His vision of the electorate, his ability to relate to it on a personal level (remember the Cadillacs and the car elevator?) and his message about the future do not match current realities. If this all was a problem in 2012, it will be more of a problem now.
In short, anyone on the receiving end of the Romney calls should ask several questions: 1.) What will be different this time? Isn’t he still burdened by the 47 percent problem? 2.) Who is going to run this thing, and who will be banished from the team? If he is not in essence starting from scratch with new faces, donors will be leery about throwing away their money. That means dumping the clunky and unimaginative policy shop, the slow-footed strategists, the makers of boring ads, and hacks who were indifferent to policy. Everyone would have to go. 3.) If Bush is too much about the past, how is Romney different? How can he paint Hillary Clinton about the past and he about the future? 4.) What is his plan for winning in an increasingly diverse country? If he does not have a credible plan for increasing his share of young, Hispanic, working-class and/or women voters, his supporters cannot expect any different result. In short, he may have been the best of a crummy field in 2012, but in 2016 he’d be a very flawed candidate in a field of more exciting contenders. So why waste donors’ money, his own time and his family’s emotional health on another run?
If Romney can’t answer those questions with a high degree of specificity to the satisfaction of people he calls, his real friends should gently explain: You were right, Mitt, in 2012 about a lot of things, but so was most everyone else in the GOP. Now we need to find someone who can win — and that person is not you. If you enter the race, it will be about your personal flaws, not about Obama’s line in a debate or his Benghazi culpability. Running for personal redemption is a rotten rationale for a presidential campaign.