Why Mitt Romney is speaking at CPAC 2013: 5 theories

The GOP's 2012 standard-bearer is making his return to public life at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Conservatives are as confused as everyone else

Considering that Romney's last speech was his concession after the election, some are surprised he was invited to speak at CPAC.
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, is one of the featured speakers at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, to be held in mid-March at a resort just outside of Washington. Romney, who has largely kept out of the spotlight since losing his White House bid in November, will make his return to public life alongside conservative stalwarts like Jeb Bush, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), former Sen. Jim DeMint, and Sarah Palin, plus rising stars like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). CPAC is probably the most high-profile conservative gathering of the year, a testing ground for conservative messaging and Republican presidential hopefuls, and conservatives are as confused as everyone else why the American Conservative Union (ACU) invited Romney to speak, and why Romney accepted.

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There are the official reasons: ACU Chairman Al Cardenas says CPAC attendees eagerly "look forward to hearing Governor Romney's comments on the current state of affairs in America and the world, and his perspective on the future of the conservative movement," while Romney said in a statement that he looks forward "to saying thank you to the many friends and supporters who were instrumental in helping my campaign." Here are five more likely reasons Romney is breaking his largely self-imposed exile:

1. Romney's bored

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Running for president is an exhausting endeavor, but the headiness of being in the spotlight and speaking to adoring crowds must make up for the relinquishment of privacy and the constant travel. Since losing the election, Romney has largely holed up in his La Jolla, Calif., estate and "he has become somewhat restless," says National Review's Robert Costa, citing friends of Romney. The former governor will deliver an "optimistic" message dealing with economic and fiscal issues, says Costa. "He's eager to contribute to the national debate."

2. He's jumping back into politics

Romney has been a little vague about his future plans. In late January, Politico reports, he addressed a group of top donors and senior campaign aides in Washington, vowing, "We lost, but I'm not going away.... I'll continue to help." But in December, The Washington Post's Philip Rucker confirmed that Romney was bored but also "has told friends he has little interest in helping the Republican Party rebuild and re-brand itself." So maybe this CPAC speech means Romney "changed his mind," says Elspeth Reeve at The Atlantic Wire. Well, if Romney's building toward another presidential run, history isn't on his side, says Constitution Daily. "The historical record of losing candidates winning the next political election is poor" — the last successful attempt was by Grover Cleveland in 1892, though Richard Nixon staged a comeback eight years after losing to JFK.

3. CPAC likes him

Conservatives have always had their misgivings about Romney, but he's been so sufficiently popular at CPAC that attendees picked him four times as winner of the closely watched presidential straw poll. So maybe ACU's Cardenas is right that "the thousands gathered at CPAC this year are eager to hear from the 2012 GOP presidential candidate." Besides, CPAC isn't all about ogling the Next Big Thing, John Brabender, former campaign adviser to Rick Santorum, tells MSNBC. "Everybody's talking about this rebranding and they almost think this is like Moneyball where we're supposed to get rid of all our players and bring new players in." CPAC will be about the message, not the messengers.

4. Nostalgia

One of the biggest puzzles about CPAC's invitation is that "conservatives have been doing everything they can to distance themselves from Romney since the polls closed last November," says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. Perhaps CPAC's organizers, like a disappointed dinner party host, asked Romney to speak "only as a courtesy with zero expectation of attendance," says Ed Kilgore at Washington Monthly. On the other hand, "maybe he's so 2012 that he's already eligible for a nostalgia tour." Yup, it will "feel like old times," says Allahpundit at Hot Air. "There's no way to avoid the ineffable awkwardness that will surround this speech," but "if there's one thing Romney does well, it's ineffable awkwardness."

5. Romney's the perfect spokesman for today's "split personality" GOP

Here's one way to encapsulate Romney's speech: "Man to appear at event devoted to repudiating him," says Hot Air's Allahpundit. But as bizarre as it is "to have the avatar of the old order speaking alongside guys whose big pitch is all about how wrong he was," it kind of fits the moment.

Romney's split personality as the ObamaCare-pioneering RINO who wants illegals to self-deport and the "takers" to do more to become "makers" is emblematic of the party's split personality right now. The leadership, in the form of Rubio, [Louisiana Gov. Bobby] Jindal, Ryan, [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie et al., desperately wants to carve out space in the center, but there's still a chunk of the conservative base that agrees with Mitt about attrition through enforcement and makers-and-takers.... Which Romney shows up at CPAC? Which gets applauded? [Hot Air]

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