IT TURNS out “no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no” doesn’t mean no after all.
Not when it comes to Mitt Romney, anyway. That emphatic string of negatives is how Romney responded last January when The New York Times asked if he would run for president again.
What he really meant was: I want to be begged.
Indeed, Romney’s camp subsequently let it be known that if 1) no credible mainstream conservative emerged and 2) the party establishment came and asked, Mitt would think about it. Think about it? Why, if hopes were horses, Romney would already have saddled his white steed and started his ride to the rescue.
Alas, however, they aren’t. No surprise there: Many a candidate has dreamt of a draft, but few have ever felt one. Not unless the kitchen door has been left ajar, that is.
In the meantime, Jeb Bush, a credentialed mainstream conservative, began the groundwork for a campaign of his own. So now Romney has had to do the unthinkable: Admit that, as he reportedly put it to a group of New York money men last week, “I want to be president.” (That desire, we’ll no doubt soon learn, is driven not by ego or ambition but rather by a deep sense of duty to country.)
Now, Romney’s camp can — and does— point to his field-leading polling numbers. But that’s almost invariably the case with a former nominee, for a simple reason: Before a new campaign begins, leftovers from the last have greater name recognition and familiarity.
To be sure, both Bush and Romney face real hurdles. For Bush, they are dynasty doubts and fraternal fatigue. He can’t do much about the first. As for the second, he’ll need to show he’s more George H.W.’s son than George W.’s brother. That is, that he’s worldly, well-informed, and prudent in his decision-making rather than incurious, overconfident, and more reliant on gut instinct than real knowledge or analysis.
But Romney’s hurdles are higher. He and his camp believe the country is suffering from lasting buyer’s remorse about the 2012 presidential election. They seem to have forgotten the Romney regret that descended on the GOP almost as soon as that campaign ended.
It was regret with a reason. Romney has run twice now, and has twice failed to demonstrate convincing campaign competence or a genuine ability to connect. And though an occasional gaffe is inevitable in a long campaign, Romney spent an astonishing amount of time munching on his own shoe leather. Further, even in the GOP’s strange 2012 callithumpian parade of candidates, he had trouble closing the deal.
Which brings us to how the two establishment candidates may campaign. Bush has said he wants to run in a high-minded, principled way, arguing for what he really believes rather than trimming his sails.
Call me a skeptic, but perhaps he’ll follow through.
Now for this question: Is there a sentient being anywhere who thinks there is even a remote chance Romney will run that way?
His 2008 campaign featured a series of acrobatic flip-flops away from his previous moderate stances. In the run-up to 2012, Team Romney talked about him standing resolutely by Romneycare, the Massachusetts health care law conservatives had praised, until it became the model for Obamacare. But Candidate Romney quickly orphaned his own crowning governmental achievement, at least as a national approach — and, of course, called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Even by political standards, Mitt’s malleability has left him looking opportunistic and inauthentic. And for good reason: He is.
It’s anyone’s guess how Romney would run this time around. But we can certainly expect a pronounced degree of political calculation and expedience.
So what would the Bush-Romney flash points be? Two likely ones: taxes and immigration.
Bush has said he would have taken the hypothetical deficit-reduction deal — 10 dollars in cuts to one in tax increases — discussed during the GOP debates last time around. Romney said no. Bush has favored a comprehensive immigration deal that would offer an accommodation for some here illegally. In both his previous campaigns, Romney has campaigned as a hard-liner on the matter.
Thus it’s easy to imagine Romney attacking Bush on those points as he wages a campaign that would appeal to litmus-test conservatives but leave general election voters dubious. Again.
Could it work? Possibly, but I’m doubtful.
For Romney, this looks less like the road to redemption than the path to palookaville.