Putting an end to weeks of speculation, Mitt Romney tells conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt that he's not running in 2016. That's too bad.
When these rumors started the idea of a third Romney campaign struck me as ridiculous. So ridiculous that I even sat down to write a piece mocking it. And yet, as I sat down to do it, I couldn't shake the conclusion that as ridiculous as it seems, it really only seems ridiculous. The deeper I looked, the more sense it made. My "to be sure" grafs kept getting longer and my qualifications kept multiplying. I was on the verge of writing a piece that angrily insisted Romneymentum was ridiculous despite five crucial things that made it non-ridiculous. The real story was the other way around. Romney is a somewhat ridiculous person, but his presidential aspirations make perfect sense.
1) Romney was a strong candidate in 2012
The conventional wisdom about the 2012 general election is that Romney ran an inept campaign that was seriously marred by gaffes. To be honest, I feel that way too. But the evidence says otherwise. Romney ran ahead of GOP Senate candidates in red states like Arizona, Indiana, Texas, and Missouri. He ran ahead of GOP Senate candidates in blue states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York. Most of all, he ran ahead of GOP Senate candidates in swing states like Ohio, Virginia, and Florida.
Part of the fundamental ridiculousness of Romney is that one of the only states where he ran behind the GOP Senate nominee is Massachusetts, his erstwhile home state. But like Romney himself, Scott Brown succeeded in the Bay State by positioning himself in a way that was ideologically unacceptable to the national GOP. The 2012 edition of Romney was "severely conservative" enough to be the Republican nominee, and yet clearly seemed more appealing than the average Republican to voters across the country.
Romney's brand of politics looks clumsy, but it works.
2) The 2012 field wasn't that weak
Discussions of the primary field Romney vanquished last time around inevitable end up involving the phrase "weak field." And it's true that the likes of Herman Cain and even Newt Gingrich were joke candidacies. But let's not misremember things.
Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry looked on paper like perfectly plausible nominees. Romney beat them despite a record containing massive, problematic ideological deviations. John Huntsman never managed to seriously challenge Romney precisely because he made the idiosyncratic decision to run as an ideological deviationist rather than as a conservative governor of a conservative state. One way of looking at this is that Romney is perhaps a cannier operator than people gave him credit for. Another way of looking at it is simply that seemingly strong candidates sometimes implode. Either way, it's a cause for hope.
3) Republicans don't want a change
The most obvious problem with a retread candidate is that generally after a defeat you want to try to do something different. But it's pretty clear that Republicans don't have any particular interest in trying out major new ideas. Throughout 2013, a major faction of the party certainly flirted with the idea of diving left on immigration. But ultimately they lost out. Utah Senator Mike Lee has proposed an intriguing new direction on tax policy, but it hasn't resonated with his colleagues and there's no sign the party is ready for a major re-think here.
For better or for worse, Republicans seem to want to go into the 2016 election with the same basic program they ran on in 2012. Given that, there's no obvious need for a new champion. And given that Romney was actually a much more effective custodian of the GOP message in 2012 than most of his peers (see point one), why not him?
4) Jeb Bush is also kinda ridiculous
At the moment, at least, the leading alternative to Romney is Jeb Bush, the once-upon-a-time governor of Florida who has high national name recognition because his brother was a hideously unpopular president in the recent past. Jeb has a lot of real strengths as a candidate, in terms of fundraising and party networks. But in some ways, this hurts non-Romney candidates way more than it hurts Romney.
Mitt has a political team, a vast personal fortune, national name recognition, and a core donor base that's loyal to him. Jeb, meanwhile, is not ideally positioned to make an argument about the need for fresh blood. But he will soak up some money and support that could otherwise go to a more formidable non-Romney contender.
Obviously, Romney stands a good chance of losing. Whoever secures the GOP nomination may well lose to Hillary Clinton. And with it looking like anywhere between three and 30,000 current or former statewide elected officials will throw their hat in the ring for the nomination, the path to victory is just objectively hard.
But it's not as if not running would accomplish anything for Romney. There's no lesser political office for him to run for. He doesn't need more money. If he skips out on 2016, a 2020 run only gets less likely. He has nothing to lose from running, and nothing to gain from sitting the race out. So why not?
All that said, no matter how compelling the Romney logic he's still no Mike Pence.