McKay Coppins tweeted this passage from his new book last night and I’ll bet I got more replies about it than he did. Obama’s legacy will be disastrous health-care reform, a frightening expansion of executive power, and a clusterfark in the Middle East bigger than anyone thought possible. My legacy will be “the guy who wrote all those posts about Romney running again in 2016.”
This is Coppins talking about Romney’s decision earlier this year about whether to drop out of the race definitively or to leave an itty bitty scrap of hope for his hardcore fans. Yes, hardcore Romney fans exist. Supposedly.
Romney had tried to explain his reasoning to this chorus of confidants, but they were still urging him not to shut the door. They contended that even if he didn’t want to launch a formal campaign right now, it would be a mistake to take himself entirely out of the running. They laid out a vivid, detailed scenario in which a fractured Republican Party — divided by a wide field of niche presidential candidates — fails to unite behind a single nominee in 2016, and ends up with a chaotic, historic floor fight at the national convention. Facing a televised descent into disarray, the GOP delegates would naturally turn to Romney — the fully vetted, steady-handed Republican statesman — for salvation.
Your party might still need you, Mitt’s loyalists insisted. The country might still need you!
All the last-minute lobbying gave Romney pause. Was he certain this was the right choice? Their appeals to his deeply felt sense of duty were compelling. He spent his final hours before the conference call consulting with his family and praying for guidance — and by Friday morning, he had inserted a bit of rhetorical wiggle room into his draft. “I’ve been asked, and will certainly be asked again, if there are any circumstances whatsoever that might develop that could change my mind,” he wrote toward the end of his statement. “That seems unlikely.” Unlikely. The word managed to appease the die-hards in his orbit, and it served to keep hope alive among some of his most loyal donors. As one of Romney’s 2012 fund-raisers would tell me months later, “There are bitter-enders who have read that statement a hundred times, and they think it’s going to happen—maybe on the floor of the convention.” Some even began to devise the crude outline of a strategy to jump-start a “draft Mitt” movement from the floor, which would involve flipping the delegates in Mormon-heavy states like Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho. In the meantime, the statement gave Romney that rare peace of mind afforded by political flexibility. Yes, he was withdrawing from the race for now — but if, come summer of 2016, his party needed a savior, Mitt Romney would be ready.
Since, for legacy reasons, I’m now duty-bound to game this out, I’ll allow that there may have been a deadlock possible among a certain group of candidates that would put Romney in play as a compromise choice. At the start of the race, before anyone thought Trump would run and Cruz was expected to be a niche figure, you could have vaguely imagined a scenario where Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker were the last three men standing. Jeb would be the establishment choice, Rubio would be the conservative pick, and Walker would be the middle-grounder for people who were sick of the Bushes but didn’t want a young senator with no executive experience. If those three guys deadlocked and no resolution could be reached, you can imagine the RNC trying to resolve the stalemate by bringing Romney back. Voters in all three of the contending camps would respect Romney; no constituency would be fatally alienated by pushing their guy aside and taking another shot with Mitt in the name of party unity.
But that’s not the race we have. The race we have is Trump, Cruz, and a center-right hero, probably Rubio but maybe Christie. Romney’s dead on arrival with those first two groups and the third, having invested emotionally in a different kind of center-right Republican (Rubio and Christie are way more charismatic than Romney), would probably only accept Mitt if they could somehow be assured that he’d overcome Trump and Cruz to become the nominee. Which they couldn’t. If anything, I think the idea of pushing everyone out of the way to nominate Romney again would so horrify Trump and Cruz fans that they might join together for a Trump/Cruz ticket instead. Romney is a guy you might reasonably turn to after a long, dull race where a bunch of candidates who are all kind of similar to him can’t quite get to 51 percent. He’s not a reasonable pick in the Calvinball primary that we’ve ended up with. It’d be like ending a Michael Bay movie with an insurance seminar. Or like ending a post about a brokered convention with a highlight reel of news bloopers.
What we should really be talking about is Romney 2020. Soon. Soon. Exit question: If Cruz fans were convinced that nominating Romney was the only way to stop Trump at a brokered convention, which way would they go on that?