My colleagues Ryu Spaeth and Jim Antle have pointed out that the rationale for the campaign is pretty straightforward. We do not know if Jeb Bush can win the Republican nomination. But we do know Mitt Romney can unite his party. By the end of his 2008 campaign, he was the conservative alternative to John McCain. In 2012, he became the establishment’s alternative to a number of conservatives. The hints dropped by Romney's people about Jeb’s weaknesses, particuarly that his signature issues of education and immigration put him too much at odds with the primary electorate, are persuasive. Romney made Rick Perry, who seemed generally more conservative than Romney, pay dearly for being to Romney’s left on immigration.
But there’s more. A Romney 2016 campaign will be even further removed from the late Bush years, which were a disaster and an electoral albatross for the GOP. The further Republicans get away from the heart palpitations of the Dow's collapse, the better they will do.
And Hillary Clinton is beatable. She will be a stellar fundraiser, and she’ll command partisan loyalties. But it is easy to see her falling short of Obama with downscale voters and the left. She’s a softer target than Obama and makes more mistakes on the hustings. It’s also possible that her coziness with moneyed interests will attract a more formidable, third-party challenger from the left who can bring the energies of the Occupy movement to bear on 2016.
Is Romney the one to take her on? He seems like a man who senses a heavy burden of destiny on him. The scene in the extremely sympathetic documentary Mitt in which he says he has done little in comparison with his father showed an eye-watering humility. “He’s the real deal,” Romney says, while talking down his own achievements in a way that discomfited his own sons.
It’s easy to imagine the man from that scene framing his loss in 2012 as the kind of purifying humiliation that prepares him for the awesome responsibility of the White House. It’s possible Romney wants not just personal redemption, but vindication for the legacy of his father, as well as recognition for the contributions of his beloved church to American life.
If that is Romney’s view of himself, others share it. People that get to know Romney can become overawed with his personal virtues. Look at Hugh Hewitt or even Paul Ryan. Little details in Mitt — the way Romney interacted with his family, the way he tidied up his own hotel room in the moments just prior to a debate — communicated something that was absent from the campaign.
Which gets us to his problems as a campaigner. Romney treats the electorate the way a private equity consultant conducts a pitch meeting. He tells those in the room what they demand to hear, then makes the best plan for them after the contract is signed, whether they like it or not. This means he appears to pander more intensely (or shamelessly) than other candidates, in his effort to communicate that he understands his clients.
Examples: Romney almost certainly overstated his commitment to legal abortion when running against Ted Kennedy for Senate in 1994 in Massachusetts. Likewise, he oversold his right-wing credentials as a “severely conservative” governor when running in the GOP primary in 2012. But Romney knows that the pitch meeting isn’t a contract for deliverables, and that no president since James K. Polk has met, or even had the chance to meet, every “campaign promise.”
Instead Romney and his supporters believe he can save the nation from Hillary Clinton. They offer his expertise to the electorate. As the economy rebounds and the war on terror becomes a long-term but lower-grade commitment, it is easy to imagine a Romney presidency translating into a consultants’s role for the federal government — making the delivery of its services cheaper, more efficient, and more sustainable for the long term.
In an era less turbulent than the decade after Sept. 11th, that would be a successful presidency indeed.