Does Mitt Romney Want to Be the GOP’s Philosopher-King?

He’s certainly acting like it.

Mitt Romney speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, on March 15, 2013. 
National Journal
Emma Roller
June 17, 2014, 1:20 a.m.

It’s been a big year for Mitt Rom­ney — and I don’t mean that fa­cetiously. After los­ing the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, he vowed to re­tire from a life of chron­ic can­did­acy. But that doesn’t mean he re­tired from polit­ics.

On the con­trary, Rom­ney is more vis­ible now than he has been since the 2012 elec­tion. He’s had a (pretty friendly) doc­u­ment­ary come out about his failed pres­id­en­tial cam­paign; Fox News has touted his pre­dic­tion that Rus­sia is “our No. 1 geo­pol­it­ic­al foe”; the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee is giv­ing one lucky donor the chance to “Grab a Bite With Mitt”; and just this week­end, he hos­ted a con­fer­ence for the next mot­ley class of GOP hope­fuls.

Mem­bers of the Class of 2016 — New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Rand Paul, and Rep. Paul Ry­an — all gathered in Park City, Utah, over the week­end to par­ti­cip­ate in Rom­ney’s lead­er­ship con­fer­ence. Called “The Fu­ture of Amer­ic­an Lead­er­ship,” the sum­mit re­sembled a con­ser­vat­ive ver­sion of the As­pen Ideas Fest­iv­al. Rom­ney’s pur­pose in host­ing the gath­er­ing, as Nich­olas Con­fess­ore wrote, was “to trans­form the rump of his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign in­to a king­mak­ing force for his largely lead­er­less and di­vided party.”

To use a gran­di­ose term, what the mod­ern GOP needs is a philo­soph­er-king: someone who can con­nect can­did­ates with donors and bund­lers, who can go on Meet the Press and calmly ex­plain that no, the Re­pub­lic­an Party is not in dis­ar­ray, and who can work quietly in the back­ground without hav­ing to sweat the dona­tions or the in­fight­ing. In 2012, Karl Rove was the closest thing Re­pub­lic­ans had to that kind of con­sigliere — un­til, well, it all fell apart. But in 2014, Rom­ney fits that bill pre­cisely.

It’s easy to dis­miss Rom­ney as a polit­ic­al fail­ure, a his­tor­ic­al foot­note. But this sort of comeback is not without pre­ced­ent. Des­pite run­ning three failed pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns between 1952 and 1960, Ad­lai Steven­son non­ethe­less had a huge ef­fect on the philo­sophy of that era’s Demo­crat­ic Party, and then on the U.S. more broadly as am­bas­sad­or to the United Na­tions.

Rom­ney made his polit­ic­al ree­m­er­gence last Au­gust, when he hos­ted a fun­draiser for the New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an Party near the Rom­ney sum­mer home in Wolfe­boro, N.H. “I’m prob­ably not the first per­son you’d ask for ad­vice,” he told the at­tendees at the event. “But be­cause we all learn from our mis­takes, I may have a thought or two of value.”

Rom­ney’s fel­low mod­er­ate thought lead­ers nev­er lost faith in him. Ry­an, Rom­ney’s former run­ning mate, called Rom­ney “a pil­lar of the mod­ern Re­pub­lic­an Party” in a re­cent NR­SC fun­drais­ing email. Joe Scar­bor­ough wants to draft Rom­ney for 2016 — an ef­fort Rom­ney has deemed “kind of silly.”

Dante Scala, a Uni­versity of New Hamp­shire polit­ic­al-sci­ence pro­fess­or, pre­dicted Rom­ney’s post-cam­paign ca­reer tra­ject­ory last Ju­ly. “I sus­pect if he’s in­ter­ested, he’ll be look­ing for more of a king­maker, be­hind-the-scenes type of role,” Scala told the Deser­et News.

And king­maker is a title that seems to fit Rom­ney well. He has seam­lessly transitioned from can­did­ate to a mem­ber of the con­ser­vat­ive elite. Sen. John Mc­Cain went back to gov­ern­ing in the Sen­ate after los­ing to Obama in 2008. By con­trast, Rom­ney is mak­ing the leap to politick­ing.

Now Rom­ney is train­ing his sights on the GOP’s next big tar­get: Hil­lary Clin­ton. “This ad­min­is­tra­tion from Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton to Pres­id­ent Obama has re­peatedly un­der­es­tim­ated the threats that are faced by Amer­ica, has re­peatedly un­der­es­tim­ated our ad­versar­ies,” he told Dav­id Gregory on Meet the Press on Sunday. “It’s not taken the ac­tion ne­ces­sary to pre­vent bad things from hap­pen­ing. It has not used our in­flu­ence to do what’s ne­ces­sary to pro­tect our in­terests.”

When asked what the play­book against Clin­ton is, Rom­ney called her ten­ure as sec­ret­ary of State a “bust,” and said Clin­ton’s com­ments about the Bowe Ber­g­dahl swap were “clue­less.”

“She said “… these com­mandos don’t rep­res­ent a threat to the United States. Well, of course they do. And then she went on to say they only rep­res­ent a threat to Afgh­anistan and Pakistan. Are you kid­ding?” he said. “I think her clue­less com­ments about the Ber­g­dahl ex­change as well as her re­cord as the sec­ret­ary of State are really go­ing to be the found­a­tion of how a Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate is able to take back the White House.”

Mitt Rom­ney will nev­er be pres­id­ent. He’ll nev­er be the cha­ris­mat­ic pop­u­list that his fath­er was. He’ll nev­er be as good at glad-hand­ing wait­resses and fact­ory work­ers as Joe Biden is (or Mike Hucka­bee, for that mat­ter). And he’s no longer the face of the GOP — pub­lic­ally, at least.

But quietly, he’s re­in­vent­ing him­self as something more power­ful and more cher­ished in mod­ern elec­tions. Mitt Rom­ney the fun­draiser may well have more power than Mitt Rom­ney the can­did­ate ever did. If you can’t be king, king­maker will do.

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