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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
Las Vegas Review-Journal Backs Trump
1 hours ago

The Las Vegas Review-Journal, owned by casino magnate and GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, became the first major city newspaper to endorse Donald Trump over the weekend.“Mr. Trump represents neither the danger his critics claim nor the magic elixir many of his supporters crave,” the editorial read, acknowledging concerns about Trump’s temperament. “But neither candidate will ever be called to the dais to accept an award for moral probity and character,” the paper said. “And we are already distressingly familiar with the Clinton way, which involves turning public service into an orgy of influence peddling and entitlement designed to line their own pockets — precisely what a disgruntled electorate now rises up to protest.”

Clinton Leads by 12 in ABC Tracking Poll
1 hours ago

Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by 12 percentage points among likely voters, 50 to 38 percent, in a new ABC News tracking poll, "her highest support and his lowest to date in ABC News and ABC News/Washington Post polls. Gary Johnson has 5 percent support, Jill Stein 2 percent. Clinton led by only four points in the last ABC/Post poll on Oct. 13.

Obama to Endorse 150 Down-Ballot Democrats
1 hours ago

President Obama "will make a late splash into races for state senate and assembly over the next week, endorsing roughly 150 candidates across 20 states. He’ll also back a candidate for the North Carolina Supreme Court. The endorsements — which will come along with a variety of robocalls, social media posts, mailers, photos of Obama with the candidates taken as he’s been traveling to campaign in recent weeks, and even a few radio ads — are Obama’s biggest investment in state races ever by far."

Clinton Reaching Out to GOP Senators
1 hours ago

If you need a marker for how confident Hillary Clinton is at this point of the race, here's one: CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports "she's been talking to Republican senators, old allies and new, saying that she is willing to work with them and govern."

Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
2 days ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.