With a spate of stories emerging in recent days that Mitt Romney seems likely to run yet again for the presidency, the first reaction of many conservatives (myself included) is to plead for him to “just . . . go . . . away.”
Upon further reflection, and with a caveat, I’d like to say, “Run, Mitt, run!”
The reason conservatives should want Romney to run is that we need as many “establishment” types as possible to run for the Republican nomination. We need more moderates to run, and fewer electable conservatives to run, because Republican primary arithmetic favors the side of the right-center divide that produces fewer truly electable candidates.
Presidential primaries, at least for the first 15 or 20 states, usually are won not by majorities but by pluralities. And pluralities are won by having one candidate who splits an identifiable strain of voters with as few other candidates as possible — or, better yet, with none.
The “establishment” rallied behind John McCain in 2008. Romney, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee all ran to his right (and with Ron Paul also taking the libertarian Right, further diluting conservative votes). McCain won less than 40 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, less than 35 percent in South Carolina, about 35 percent in Florida and Oklahoma, and less than 40 percent in Missouri (to list the most heavily contested early-ish states), but he won pluralities and thus was declared the “victor” in each. (This also meant he grabbed the bulk of the delegates in each of these states.) On the strength of those early pluralities, he grabbed the cloak of inevitability for the nomination.
In 2012, Romney won small pluralities while the clearly more conservative Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich repeatedly split up well over half the vote in each contest — and Romney hobbled to a nomination that fewer than half of Republican voters wished him to get. As it was, just 23,000 votes in Romney’s home state of Michigan and only 10,000 votes a week later in Ohio kept Santorum from knocking Romney out of the race, even with Gingrich siphoning large percentages of votes directly from Santorum.
Clearly, if conservatives had been more unified and establishmentarians more fractured, those nominations would not have gone to McCain and Romney.
This year, somehow, we who want to see an electable “movement conservative” take the nomination should therefore want as many establishmentarians as possible to run. We should want Romney and Jeb Bush and Chris Christie (and perhaps Peter King and George Pataki and Lindsey Graham) all to run, all out, while only one or two solid conservatives split the majority of Republican voters on the more rightward side of the spectrum. It is particularly true that Romney and Bush pull from many of the same sorts of backers, and that if only one of the two of them runs, that one candidate will have a major advantage in event that Santorum, Mike Pence, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker (to name four of many possibilities) all vie for the conservative slices of the electoral pie.
It should then warm conservative hearts to see it reported that Romney “does not feel he owes the Bushes anything and does not think Jeb is the de facto leader of the establishment GOP.” This Romney–Bush rivalry, if it continues to develop, could provide an opening for a conservative to win pluralities while the two more familiar names battle each other.
Of course, some of us would prefer that neither of them run. Part of it is philosophical: Bush’s fondness for amnesty and Common Core and Romney’s pudding-like right-centerism are both major turnoffs. Part of it is the desire for new blood. As I noted in an NRO column ten months ago, the same families that were in the news nearly weekly in the fall of 1968, nearly a half-century ago, have dominated Republican politics ever since, and this sends the wrong signal to the electorate. Okay, okay, I wouldn’t mind another Reagan, but when a Bush, a Dole, a Romney, and a McCain are still at or near the top of the Republican totem pole for the next 46 years, it really does make our side look tired and worn out, like an enervated ruling class desperately holding on to eroding perks.
Part of my dislike is about tone: Bush has far too often been almost insultingly dismissive of conservative concerns on numerous issues, while Romney can’t make an appeal to manual laborers to save his life.
And part of my particular antipathy to Romney is the outrageously poor messaging of what should have been an eminently winnable campaign in 2012. All the reports in the past year have indicated that Romney never really believed he would beat Obama — and it showed in his campaign. He was, of course, the single worst possible Republican candidate to make the case against Obamacare — which should have been the campaign’s single biggest issue — but he never even really tried. He should have pounded home his criticism of Obama’s ineptness and lies related to the Benghazi atrocity, but he got scared off by Candy Crowley. And he should have resisted the terribly ill-advised urge to go way overboard with his attack on Obama’s “you didn’t build that” idiocy. But because Romney doesn’t fully understand that workers as well as entrepreneurs should make up the Republican base, he allowed that attack line to become a parody of itself.
On top of all that, there is this fact: Aside from Richard Nixon, nobody has ever won the presidency after losing a previous election as one nominee in a two-major-party system since Thomas Jefferson returned from his 1796 defeat to take the White House in 1800. And Nixon had two unique advantages: First, many people rightly thought he had been robbed of the 1960 election; and second, he benefited from a major ideological split among Democrats.
With no clear philosophical mission, no claim of having had an election stolen from him, and no other anomaly working to his benefit, Romney is not any more likely to beat the Democrats in 2016 than he was in 2012.
For all those reasons, then, conservatives should not want Romney anywhere near the nomination. But, as explained above, the best way for one of our own to get the nomination is probably for Romney to join Bush in seeking the nomination that neither one ought to win.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.