Mitt Romney: Kingmaker?
Mitt Romney decided not to run in 2016 but he's very much in the race.
Mitt Romney decided not to run in 2016 but he’s very much in the race.
POLITICO (“Mitt’s new mission: Romney is working to rid the GOP presidential primary of the mayhem that marked his own race“):
Mitt Romney is working with an unlikely collaborator — Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul who bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign — in the hopes of ensuring that the GOP primary produces a mainstream conservative without any of the mayhem that marked his own race.
The two, who speak monthly, aim to convince the wealthy contributors bankrolling various candidates to work together to avoid the kind of primary election chaos that Romney believes laid the seeds for his defeat in 2012. The former Massachusetts governor is also considering endorsing a candidate to achieve his goal.
They’re unmistakable signs of Romney’s newly assertive role in the Republican Party but also of his determination to guarantee the GOP an unbloodied nominee with broad-based appeal.
It was all on display at the E2 Summit this week, which drew around 250 of his most loyal donors and prominent supporters to the Stein Eriksen Lodge, a luxurious five-star ski resort. Six Republican presidential hopefuls also made the Utah trip — one of whom, Scott Walker, used part of his nearly 40-minute speech to pay tribute to Romney’s father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney. Chris Christie, during a Friday afternoon speech, paid homage by saying the 2012 nominee had been clairvoyant in the warnings he’d raised about the direction of the nation’s foreign policy. “I don’t think that Mitt’s got the apology note yet from the president,” said the New Jersey governor, who prior to his address spoke with Romney backstage.
For a failed nominee who waged a presidential bid that many in his party found disappointing, Romney maintains a striking degree of influence. In part, it’s because of his unique mix of business acumen and political skills, but it’s also a recognition of his deep access to the complex, jungle-like world of super PAC donors. In a party that lacks a unifying figure, he’s eager to fill the void.
“I think he realizes he has a good role to play,” said Ron Kaufman, a longtime Romney friend and adviser who is a Republican National Committeeman. “He can be a senior statesman.”
But serving as a middle man between the candidates and big money donors is hardly a “senior statesman” role.
One big question hanging over Romney is whether he’ll endorse a candidate. He would be most likely to provide his seal of approval, friends say, if the primary contest turns into a battle between a pragmatic candidate and one who isn’t.
“There’s the possibility that there might be someone who emerges strong who I agree with on a whole host of issues, and then someone else comes along who I find not as attractive from a policy standpoint or another standpoint. And at that stage I might jump in and go to work to help the one who’s more in tune with the things I believe,” Romney told reporters on Friday evening.
The value of that assistance would be considerable. Aside from his sprawling network of powerful donors, he has access to Restore our Future, the super PAC that supported his 2012 presidential bid and remains active. The group has nearly $200,000 in its bank account.
“He wants to win,” said Spencer Zwick, Romney’s former finance chairman and one of his closest confidants. “The question is whether we nominate a candidate who can win the general election.”
Romney, however, is wary of the risks involved in getting behind a contender. He’s relishing his role as an informal adviser — Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie have all sought him out for his private counsel — and endorsing would mean relinquishing that power.
That’s more interesting, I guess, but endorsements don’t much matter in an era where there’s so much media and everyone has direct access to the voters. I voted for Romney in 2012 and value his insights but can judge for myself which candidate to support once the race has played out more.
Those that have spoken with Romney say the pain and introspection over his 2012 loss hasn’t completely subsided. In February, during a private dinner at Adelson’s home before a group of Jewish Republican donors, the former governor held forth on foreign policy, analyzing the turmoil abroad. “He said he wished he could be president, because he wanted to deal with these problems,” said one person in the room.
At other times, he seems to reflect on his failings as a candidate. “In my case there were a long list of mistakes. So which one is at the top I can’t judge,” he joked lightheartedly to reporters on Friday. Romney noted that he was “far from successful” in selling his campaign to minorities.
He’s still on a search for answers. Zwick — one of the most sought-after Republican operatives — has remained neutral in the 2016 race, and has undertaken a research project aimed at better understanding the reasons for Romney’s 2012 defeat with a goal of not replicating them for the future.
“He wants to be involved in whatever way he can be,” said Romney’s eldest son, Tagg. “And one of the ways he can be involved is helping whoever the future nominee is learn from his successes and also from his mistakes.”
There’s much more value to be had here. As the runner up for the 2008 nomination and nominee but failed general election candidate in 2012, Romney has better insights into the vagaries of running for president than perhaps anyone. But, frankly, most of Romney’s “mistakes” were simply a function of the fact that he’s not a great retail politician and comes across as downright weird when he tries to connect with ordinary folks. I’m not sure that any amount of advice can help someone with similar deficits overcome them.
When Romney decided earlier this year that he wouldn’t seek the presidency, it took some of his aides by surprise. He’d pondered running for about a month, speaking to many of the people in his network — a brief exploratory that, for a time, led many to believe he’d launch a third consecutive bid.
On Friday, Romney provided a window into his decision not to run, saying it reflected a calculation of his prospects. He recognized, he said, that “someone who wasn’t as negatively defined as I was in some circles, and someone who was the next political generation, had a better chance of getting the White House than I did. I said, ‘You know, I’ve had two shots, I really should let someone else who I think has a better shot getting the presidency have a chance to do so.”
The role of party elder seems to suit him. At this week’s summit, the third that Romney has hosted, he was in good spirits. Romney — who was often criticized for his stiff appearance — was tie-less, his hair less gelled and parted than in the campaign. On Friday morning, on his way to Rubio’s speaking event, he called out to a group of reporters to follow him into the auditorium. “Come on, guys,” he said smiling.
“I don’t look back and second guess,” Romney said. “I don’t say, ‘Oh, I should have made a different decision.’ I’m glad I made the decision I did.”
So . . . less hair gel?
In many presidential races in my adult lifetime, the losing candidate would second-guess themselves afterwards for being overly staged managed and not just being themselves. Bob Dole in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000 ares the most obvious examples but John McCain in 2008 and to a lesser extent Romney in 2012 fell into the trap, too. Romney doesn’t have the ability to connect across audiences in the way that Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama did but few do; indeed, they’re the list in my lifetime. Romney would have been more appealing simply owning who he was. Still, he was up against not only a better politician but a sitting president with a rising economy; he was likely going to lose regardless.
Beyond that, while I very much support Romney’s goal of finding the most attractive Republican candidate to run against, presumably, Hillary Clinton next fall—and doing so without fracturing the party in the process—it’s not at all clear how he’ll have much influence over that fact. The real story seems to be that Sheldon Adelson, who poured so much money into Newt Gingrich’s quixotic run last go around, seems to be on board. Having candidates without much appeal drop out of the race early rather than being propped up by big donors would be helpful.
Better still would be a revival of Reagan’s “11th Commandment.” If the candidates for the nomination would compete on the basis of their experience and vision for the country rather than attacking their opponents as insufficiently conservative, the GOP would be in much better shape. To the extent Romney can help do that behind the scenes—whether by controlling the flow of money and dangling his endorsement—he’ll be valuable. But there’s next to zero chance of that happening, given the fractured state of the party, the ridiculous number of candidates, and the modern media environment.