Mitt Romney long ago ruled out a presidential run in 2016, but he is hardly retired from politics.
As he answered questions from college students for an hour on Wednesday, it became clear that Romney is a keen if not obsessive observer of the campaign’s twists and turns and has strong ideas on what the Republican Party and its eventual nominee must do to win back the White House.
“The Democrats have done a great job characterizing my party as the party of the rich,” Romney said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
He added: “Rich people have gotten richer under President Obama. It’s the poor and the middle class who are suffering. It’s the poor and the middle class who need conservatives.”
Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, spoke Wednesday afternoon at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington. One of his former campaign aides, Jake Kastan, who is now pursuing an MBA at Georgetown, invited Romney to visit and moderated a question-and-answer session with a few hundred fellow students.
Assessing the presidential contest, Romney said he was surprised at how it was unfolding. Romney seriously considered entering himself in what would have been his third quest for the presidency, but he decided against it in January.
“I would have never predicted that the leader of my party at this stage would be Donald Trump and the leader in their party right now would be a socialist,” Romney said, referring to Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont.
Romney had sharp words for Trump, a billionaire businessman and reality television star who endorsed Romney in 2012 and donated to his campaign. Explaining the Trump phenomenon, Romney said, “Frankly, when you light your hair on fire, you make the evening news, and some people have a lot of hair lit on fire.”
“The attention that Mr. Trump has brought to the process is welcome,” Romney said. “We like the fact that people are watching the debates. That’s the positive side. The negative side is that he’s said some things that he described the other day as being ‘childish.’ . . . I’m afraid he brought attention to [immigration] in a way that was not productive and not appropriate in saying the things he did about Mexican American immigrants.”
Romney said he is concerned that several candidates — he did not name names — have made statements “that some minority populations look at and say, ‘Wow, I guess they don’t like me very much.’ ” He said Republicans must communicate with heart and say, “We like legal immigration and we like helping people.”
Romney said he sees the Republican contest breaking into two brackets: “the more insurgent, outspoken, tea party perhaps bracket” and “the more mainstream conservative bracket.” In the former, he placed Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. In the latter, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, retired technology executive Carly Fiorina and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Romney was definitive in predicting the front-runner’s fate: “Donald Trump will not be the nominee. Ultimately our nominee will come from the mainstream conservative bracket. I don’t know who that will be.”
Reflecting on the anger many voters feel toward politicians, Romney said he has been reading the writings of John Adams, the nation’s second president, and cited a letter that Adams wrote to John Taylor: “He said, ‘Every democracy murders itself. Every democracy commits suicide.’ ”
But Romney said he believed the American people would “do the right thing.”
“I know there’s some skunks in any endeavor — business, politics — and they get most of the visibility, but there are also some really good people,” Romney said.
Throughout his hour with students, Romney repeatedly referenced specific things he would do if he were president. In Syria, for instance, he said he would “wall off” and “isolate” President Bashar al-Assad. Romney was particularly animated about the Iran nuclear deal, saying that “Donald Trump was right: [President Obama] is a terrible negotiator. I can’t imagine a worse negotiator.”
On domestic policy, Romney said he would “put a stick in the heart of generational poverty” and dramatically overhaul the 1960s-era social programs that he said had failed in the war on poverty. This was a core part of Romney’s message in January as he toyed with a run.
Romney appeared relaxed with the students, joking, “I was approached in the airport some time ago. Someone said, ‘You look familiar. Who are you?’ I said, ‘Tom Brady.’ ”
At another point, Romney sang the virtues of the Netflix series “House of Cards” — though he noted, “I will not take inspiration from Frank Underwood.” Playfully motioning to a reporter, he added that he does not endorse murdering journalists.
With the clock nearing an hour, Romney got his 15th and final question. It came from Kastan, who said his mom wanted to know whether Romney would reconsider his vow not to run again.
“We’ve made that decision,” Romney said.
Afterwards, a Washington Post reporter noted the continuing calls from Romney’s friends to draft him into the race and asked whether his answer was a definitive “no.”
“You know, the unavailable is always the most interesting, the most attractive. Ha, ha, ha,” Romney said, laughing as he made his way out of the auditorium. He was off to the airport and had a plane to catch.