SAN DIEGO — Mitt Romney stepped back into the political arena Friday night, reborn as a prospective presidential candidate with a message almost as surprising as his apparent desire to run again for the White House.
From the man pilloried for describing 47 percent of the population as people who act like victims, are dependent on the government and are not willing to take personal control of their own lives, came a domestic economic message that focused on the problem of stagnant wages, the plight of a struggling middle class and a pledge to eradicate poverty in America.
In its broadest strokes and aspirations, what Romney outlined was an agenda that many Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, likely could applaud. For the former Massachusetts governor, the question that will come quickly is whether he has the credibility, given his past campaigns, to persuasively deliver that message. In other words: Is this the authentic Mitt Romney?
Romney laid out this vision aboard the USS Midway, which is permanently docked as a museum in downtown San Diego, at a reception that marked the capstone of a Republican National Committee meeting rich in presidential intrigue and possibilities.
Party leaders were ebullient over the results of the midterm victories and focused on winning the White House in 2016. Romney had shocked Republicans — including many who served him in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns — by announcing at a private meeting with GOP contributors on Jan. 9 in New York that he still wanted to be president and was seriously considering running in 2016.
In the intervening days, as Romney made rounds of telephone calls to take soundings, the machinery around him began to punch out talking points that were designed to push back against the doubters and the disgruntled within the party who believe he blew a perfectly good chance to win the White House against President Obama in the 2012 election and were skeptical about another campaign.
But the haste and seemingly haphazard nature of the rollout served only to generate further backlash in various corners of the party. Romney’s closest advisers said such talk was expected and would not deter Romney. But others were complaining privately that there was too much talk about the process of running and not enough about the substantive rationale and a description of what would be different this time.
Romney stayed silent until Friday night. When he finally spoke, he sounded like a man hoping to banish the ghosts of 2012 and start anew, not as the candidate caricatured by his opponents last time as an out-of-touch plutocrat, but as a man of compassion and faith who has lived a life of quiet aid and counsel to people in need.
The Mormon who resisted talking about his religion in his two previous presidential bids invoked it Friday night in the space of a 15-minute speech. And to those who might question this, he pointed to his wife, Ann, who stood at his side as she has throughout his long political quest, saying she could vouch for those credentials.
“She knows my heart in a way that few people do,” he said. “She’s seen me not just as a business guy and a political guy, but for over 10 years, as you know, I served as a pastor for a congregation and for groups of congregations. . . . She’s seen me work with folks that are looking for better work and jobs and providing care for the sick and the elderly. She knows where my heart is.”
Before he said that, Romney laid out what he said could be a winning conservative message in 2016, built on three pillars: security and safety in the face of foreign terrorist threats, opportunity for all Americans regardless of upbringing and a focus on finding ways to lift people out of poverty.
His foreign policy rhetoric seemed little changed from 2012, though this time he went after former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, viewed as the likeliest Democratic nominee in 2016, as much as Obama for weakness and mismanagement. Citing threats across the globe to U.S. security, Romney said, “The results of the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama foreign policy have been devastating, and you know that. Terrorism is not on the run.”
The focus on poverty and a struggling middle class was a shift, though not unique in the political debate of 2015. From Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — Romney’s 2012 vice-presidential running mate — or Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, issues of poverty, wage stagnation, income inequality and social mobility have moved to the top of the domestic and economic agendas. More recently, former Florida governor and potential 2016 GOP candidate Jeb Bush has seized on the same themes.
Romney sought to cast particular blame on the president for promising but failing to make progress in dealing with these problems. “Under President Obama,” he said, “the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty than ever before. Under this president, his policies have not worked. Their liberal policies are good every four years for a campaign, but they don’t get the job done.”
Romney knows how well those “liberal policies” worked for Obama in the 2012 campaign. The president framed the election not as a referendum on his economic record but as a test of which candidate middle-class voters trusted more with their futures, spending hundreds of millions of dollars seeking to disqualify Romney. Among voters who said the most important attribute in their vote in 2012 was a candidate “who cares about people like me,” Obama won them by 81 percent to 18 percent.
In 2012, Romney often talked about the economy from the perspective of entrepreneurs and business owners, small and large, rather than workers or working families. On Friday night, he focused his sights on those who are struggling, saying it is “a human tragedy” that middle-class Americans do not believe that the lives of their children will be better than their own. “People want to see rising wages and they deserve them,” he said.
Most striking was Romney’s call to “finally end the scourge of poverty in this great land.” He noted it was 50 years ago that President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty. “His heart was in the right place, but his policies didn’t work,” he said.
Romney argued that conservatives must show that their policies can do what liberal policies have not. “We’re an abundant nation,” he said. “We have the resources and the capacity — intellectually, mentally, financially — to lift people out of poverty.”
Romney’s remarks on Friday will immediately give rise to charges that he has had a change of heart out of political convenience or necessity, something that dogged him in his first campaign and constrained him in his second.
Was the Romney seen briefly Friday the true descendant of his father, George, who wore his passions about civil rights and ordinary Americans on his sleeves, and the compassionate leader of his religious order? Or was this simply another calculated political shift, one more sharp turn in a political life? Those who know him well would argue that what people heard on Friday was a glimpse of the true Romney, who was rarely seen in the 2012 campaign.
Some of Romney’s most intimate counselors, including his wife, Ann, and son Tagg, argued unsuccessfully last time for a campaign built more directly around the goal of showing off the inner Mitt. The only time there was any testimony about Romney’s compassionate works came at the national convention from members of his church.
Absent more of that, he was done in by comments like, “I like to fire people,” and, “I’m not concerned about the very poor, we have a safety net there.” These words were taken out of context, which helped feed a negative narrative the Democrats were determined to sell. It took a post-election documentary called “Mitt” to project a warmer, more human side of the man.
What Romney did on Friday, one adviser said, was exactly what was needed as he makes a final decision about running. He said Romney had put enough substantive meat on the bones of his newly stated presidential ambitions to buy more time to make a considered decision about running again.
Having done so, however, Romney will hear calls to outline the conservative policies that would turn that vision into reality, to show that he has something truly new to say. He will face even more pressure to show that the way he has framed his possible candidacy is a genuine representation of both his heart and his head.
In appearances on consecutive Fridays, Romney has managed twice to surprise the political world. If he runs, he must persuade Republicans that he can successfully carry that vision into a general election and not leave them disappointed once again.