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SCOT LEHIGH

How Romney can stay relevant

Former Republican presidential candidate and Massachusetts Governot Mitt Romney.

Al Bello/Getty Images

Former Republican presidential candidate and Massachusetts Governot Mitt Romney.

Granted, this is not an assertion you’re likely to see elsewhere.

But here goes: Mitt Romney could play a pivotal role in shaping the future of the Republican Party.

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Let me concede up front that there is ample reason to be skeptical.

Romney’s stock has nose-dived since Election Day. No one likes a loser, particularly not in a winnable race. Nor did he pick up many points for graciousness. Recall his after-action conference call in which he averred that Barack Obama had prevailed by dangling political gifts in front of voters. Next came his decision to skip Obama’s inauguration, a move that didn’t exactly elevate him to the high peaks region of post-election magnanimity.

The GOP, meanwhile, seems eager to fast-forward to the future. When Mitt reappeared in Washington last week and declared he wasn’t going away, the party’s collective response seemed to be: Huh? Oh, you’re that Romney guy, right? OK, enough about you. Let’s talk about us.

There is no Romney wing of the party, no army of loyalists hell-bent on preserving his legacy. For that matter, there’s no real legacy to preserve. What Mitt left is more like footprints in beach sand.

Why? Largely because, having made himself a primary-season prisoner to conservative political correctness, Romney spent most of the general election trying to finesse, rather than address, difficult issues.

And yet, here’s the irony: Despite all that, Romney could carve out an important role by helping develop a politically palatable policy path for his party. After all, in his other incarnations, Romney actually was a creative thinker and problem solver, one skilled at finding new approaches to old problems.

Most notably, of course, he was the architect of Massachusetts health care reform, the individual mandate-based system that became the model for Obamacare. Yes, Candidate Romney disavowed it as a national approach once conservatives decided that if Obama was for it, they were opposed. Still, it was no small accomplishment to get this left-leaning state to embrace what at the time was a credentialed conservative idea. Romney’s administration was also notable for its smart-growth and sustainability strategies.

Nationally, once Romney finally realized that he might not win the presidency merely by being a warm-bodied alternative to Obama, his campaign policy shop actually cranked out some interesting ideas. One of their primary purposes was obviously to camouflage the true budgetary effects of his fiscal promises. There, they failed.

Still, several, such as his scheme to let insurance plans bid annually to provide Medicare services, and his notion of putting a dollar cap on income-tax deductions, were innovative and thought-provoking.

Now let’s see. Which party is beginning a search for new ideas and approaches? And which party desperately needs to find a way back from the political wilderness?

That would be the GOP.

So what if Romney were to establish — and endow — a moderate Republican think tank? Let’s call it the George W. Romney Institute for the Future, after the stiffer-backboned father that Mitt idolized, but, sadly, didn’t emulate on the campaign trail. A well-resourced Romney Institute could develop smart centrist policies.

Romney, after all, has binders full of brainy policy people. He’s a prodigious fundraiser. He’s got credibility with the business community. He’s well-versed on economic competitiveness issues. He’s wrestled with the thorny problems of governing. He grasps the complexities of health care policy better than most politicians. And, of course, he understands the feints and evasions of modern politics.

Done right, Romney’s institute could become an ideas center for Republican moderates, a place that developed innovative center-right approaches for the decades ahead.

Romney’s dual private- and public-sector background also suggests another dimension for such an institute: Teaching management principles to politicians. That isn’t a skill that comes naturally to those in the political realm, and particularly not to legislators, whose management experience often doesn’t extend beyond their own staff.

As Romney himself has declared, his campaign days are over. To be blunt, they ended with the unsatisfying sense that Romney’s reluctance to sail into the wind of the Tea Party tempest put him on a course far short of his potential. He has no one to blame for that but himself.

But by creating a top-notch think tank, Romney could remain relevant — and perhaps even leave a lasting public-policy legacy.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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