No Joke

Mitt Romney on the 2016 Comeback Trail

It probably tells us more about the other Republican presidential candidates, but people are starting to ask: will Mitt run again?

02.07.14 11:03 AM ET

The last time that someone had leveraged a movie for a comeback as successfully as Mitt Romney has used the documentary Mitt, John Travolta was nominated for an Oscar in Pulp Fiction.

Just over a year ago, Romney was a political dead man walking.

He’d lost the presidency, a race Republicans thought was theirs to win, and his defeat reignited the civil war between the GOP establishment and the upstart Tea Party. The Tea Party and social conservatives never had much use for Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate” and the Establishment just saw him a loser. But now after Chris Christie’s political fall from grace and no heir apparent to be anointed as the Establishment candidate, Romney suddenly looked a whole lot better. There he was with Jimmy Fallon slow jamming the news, starring at Sundance in the documentary, Mitt, and giving authoritative interviews on the security arrangements in Sochi.

It was the political equivalent of shouting from the rooftops that his year-long post-election exile had come to an end. Then there were the tweets, “Is he running?” Inquiring minds wanted to know. It was in the air; it was getting buzz. And while the great and varied minds that compose the political echo chamber discount another Romney run as improbable and unlikely, the fact that he’s even mentioned says more about the state of the GOP than it does about Romney himself.

“You know what you’re getting with Mitt Romney,” says Jack Pitney, Professor of Politics at Claremont-McKenna College. “The other candidates are question marks.” Watching Christie get waylaid by scandal and other promising contenders like Florida Senator Marco Rubio getting sidelined by the Tea Party “contributes to some of the Romney rumbles,” says Pitney. “Some of the rising stars are going into eclipse, and who knows who’ll be next.” 

With Romney, there would be no new surprises. “Any bombshells would have exploded,” says Pitney. “We know about Bain and his reversals on the issues.” They’re liabilities, but they’re not career-enders. Obama’s lost year left some voters with buyer’s remorse that combined with the weak economy creates a potential opening for a re-match. Still, Larry Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, doesn’t buy it. “It’s not going to happen,” he says. His reasoning: Republicans think Romney lost a winnable race, and they’re not about to give him another nomination.

With the future of the GOP uncertain, and a bitter primary fight on the horizon, Romney for now is the party’s “security blanket,” says Sabato. “You know the pluses; you know the minuses, but it wouldn’t take long for people to get tired of him.” Even so, it must be flattering for Romney to merit even a mention as a contender for 2016, as opposed to being permanently kicked to the curb. Asked Wednesday if he’s running, Romney told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “The answer is no, I'm not running for president in 2016. It's time for someone else to take that responsibility and I'll be supporting our nominee.”

Michael Dukakis, another Massachusetts governor who ran for president and lost, was not treated nearly as well by the Democratic Party after he was defeated by Vice President George H.W. Bush. Democrats expected to win in 1988 with President Reagan leaving the White House and Bush viewed as a weak and ineffective leader, hobbled by “the wimp factor.” Dukakis came out of the Democratic convention in July 18 points ahead and took the month of August off while Bush hammered away at his patriotism. He lost the Electoral College by a wide margin, and the image of him in a helmet and looking silly as he rode around in a tank underscored the candidate’s humiliation. No one ever suggested Dukakis as a potential candidate again.

“There is plenty you can say about the candidate, but the problem is systemic to the parties,” says Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Conference, which is credited with moving the Democrats back into contention as a winning national party after three consecutive losses in presidential elections 1980, 1984, and 1988. In 1989, two DLC-sponsored scholars, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck, published “The Politics of Evasion,” concluding that “people didn’t trust [Democrats] to reflect their values or to defend the country,” says From. That was why Dukakis climbed into the tank, a misguided effort to show strength, and why the attacks on him as a “card-carrying member of the ACLU” worked so well.

“We were worse off then than the Republicans are now,” says From, whose recent book titled “The New Democrats and the Return to Power,” recounts his party’s journey back to the political center. He contends that Republicans need a similar vehicle, and that expecting any one candidate to save a failed party is a fantasy.  “Republicans who want to win the White House without changing the definition of the party can’t get over the top,” he says. “It’s a party problem, not a candidate problem.”

But Democrats were helped by selecting a superbly talented politician to break their streak and none of the potential GOP contenders appear to be the second coming of Bill Clinton. In a 2016 Republican field that could be populated by libertarians, religious zealots, and second raters, if Romney looks like a giant, it’s only because he’s surrounded by political pygmies.