photo by Gage Skidmore
Like practically everyone who shares my demographic characteristics (middle-aged and white) and political persuasion (Republican, albeit a socially liberal one), I voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. Regular readers of this blog will be unsurprised that I still think he would have been a considerably more effective president than the one we have.
But just because I liked Romney in 2012 doesn’t mean I want to see him as the GOP nominee in 2016. I liked that container of milk I picked up at the store the other day, but once it passes its expiration date - or at least passes it by enough - I am going to throw it away.
Romney is past his expiration date.
As one of my favorite journalists, who just happens to be my daughter Ali, recently observed in a piece for Bloomberg Politics, both Mitt and Ann Romney seemed to have acknowledged this. For most of 2014, the Romneys gave the impression that they favored Jeb Bush as the 2016 Republican nominee, praising him in multiple interviews, even if they did not commit outright to supporting his campaign for the GOP nomination. If nothing else, it appeared clear that Romney would not run.
Or it seemed clear until earlier this month, when Romney reportedly told donors he might consider getting into the 2016 nomination battle himself.
That would be a really bad idea, both for Romney and the Republican Party. People don’t like to admit, or even imply, that they were wrong in the past. The next Republican candidate will need to pick up at least some of the votes that Romney lost in 2012. That candidate is unlikely to get those votes from the African-American community or from whites who are committed Democrats. The swing votes are, well, the swing votes - white voters who are not particularly political, and especially Latino voters, among whom Romney ran notably poorly. Jeb Bush, incidentally, has a history of doing well with both groups.
I can tell you in one word why it would be a terrible outcome for the GOP if Bush, for example, were to lose the nomination to Romney. That word is Florida. Bush has won the most important presidential swing state twice as governor. Romney lost Florida in 2012. Winning Florida alone would not have been enough to put Romney in the White House, due to his poor showing with Latinos in places like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, but the 2012 electoral map clearly shows the baggage Romney is carrying.
A Romney candidacy in 2016 has every prospect of reprising not only his own 2012 race, but the McCain candidacy of 2008 as well. McCain was a high-potential Republican and a strong presidential candidate - in 2000, when he lost the nomination to Jeb’s brother George W. Bush. By 2008, McCain seemed tired and sometimes overwhelmed. His nomination of Sarah Palin as his running mate fired up the GOP base, but ultimately created a political monster. When the financial crisis struck in the fall, McCain floundered without a response except to suspend his own campaign while proposing hiatus from presidential debates, while inexperienced Barack Obama projected an image of presidential-caliber calm.
Even if Romney ran a flawless race, he would be fighting an uphill battle. The only major-party nominee since the 1800s who lost a general presidential election before winning one was Richard Nixon. But not for lack of trying. The Washington Post observed that since 1896, four repeat candidates made it to the general election and lost; six didn’t even secure their party’s nomination. The burden would rest on Romney to demonstrate what had changed since the previous election, while his opponents could, and doubtless would, be quick to remind voters of past missteps.
Some observers have suggested that Romney may not be committed to running in 2016. If he has doubts that Jeb Bush could carry a general election but is reluctant to voice those concerns directly, Romney could be trying to keep donors from committing while waiting to see if a stronger candidate appears. But the scenario seems odd, given that Bush is a potential candidate that Romney singled out as a strong possibility in past interviews and appearances. Then again, given the twists in the Romney narrative over the past months, it might be wise not to take much of anything at face value.
I would probably vote for Romney if he somehow secured the nomination next year. I have been known to consume milk well past its expiration date too, and it hasn't killed me. (Modern ultra-pasteurization is amazing.) But drinking expired milk isn’t the best idea, and a Romney replay next year wouldn’t be the best idea for Republicans, or for the country either.
Mitt and Ann had it right the first time. Romney can best serve his party, and his country, by staying in the background, helping to pick a candidate with the best chance of winning and making sure that candidate has the resources needed to get across the finish line. Even, and maybe especially, if that candidate is not named Romney.