For a few days in October 2013, an ill-conceived Republican plan to hobble Obamacare by shutting down the federal government had the perverse effect of displacing an enormous Obama administration failure from front pages and top-of-the-hour news segments across the country.
When the government reopened, the federal insurance portal still barely functioned, leaving thousands of consumers, whose plans had been canceled, without a simple way to replace their lost coverage.
The chaos played out against a backdrop of a tepid economic recovery, and a series of White House pseudo scandals, whose meritlessness didn’t stop them from dominating Obama’s political agenda.
Whenever a president stumbles, the bumper-sticker industry thrives, and in mid-to-late 2013, Republicans became unusually consumed by “Don’t blame me, I voted for Mitt”-ism. In September, before the Healthcare.gov outage, Romney loyalists openly claimed vindication to BuzzFeed reporter McKay Coppins, who aired their grievances in an article—“Was Mitt Romney Right About Everything?”—that has been viewed nearly 400,000 times.
For a full year thereafter, Republicans expressed the idea that the 2012 election had been badly decided in a variety of ways, including with not-so-vague insinuations that Obama had used the IRS as a jackboot to stamp out the right’s winning message. But a less conspiratorial theme—that the country was simply experiencing buyer’s remorse—dominated conservative consciousness. Romney may have been an imperfect candidate, but he understood the country’s problems, and the threats it faced, better than the guy the voters elected.
In this Sliding Doors world where Romney won the victory he deserved, Obamacare vanished, the country reoriented its posture in the world to brace itself for the Russian menace, the economy surged, and the consequent public gratitude bought Republicans the political space they needed to begin a swift rollback of the Leviathan state—a goal that has eluded them for several decades.
Along with name recognition, the solidarity bubble that engulfed Romney explains why Romney has dominated GOP primary polls for several months. An August USA Today/Suffolk poll conducted in Iowa found that 35 percent of caucus-goers would support Romney in 2016 if he joined the race. More recent, nationwide polls show Romney leading the pack, including fellow establishmentarian Jeb Bush, by a comfortable margin in a crowded field.
Under the circumstances that dominated 2013 and 2014, the political logic of a third Romney candidacy was surprisingly powerful. If the final two years of Obama’s presidency were to resemble the two that just passed, Romney supporters would have been able to marshal the Republican Party’s burning desire for a mulligan toward the end of securing him the nomination for a second time.
Instead, Romney is announcing his interest in yet another run amidst a budding sense that the Obama presidency is paying real dividends. The ongoing Obamacare enrollment period has been a fantastic success, and the program as a whole has reduced uninsurance in this country to a historic low. Rapid, sustained economic growth has brought the rate of unemployment well below six percent—the level Romney promised his administration would achieve by the end of 2016. The price of gasoline is flirting with $2 a gallon, which has hastened both the humiliation of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a recognition that the right’s strange Putin fixation was misguided all along.
If these trends continue the logic of a Romney revival—and the appetite for it within the electorate—will recede. Where Romney might have argued that second chances are hard to come by, and rarely denied, his candidacy will appear motivated by a desperate sense of entitlement exhibited by people who don’t realize they’re damaged goods.
The tragedy for Romney is that the next president is likely to face circumstances that call for decidedly Romneyesque qualities: steady management, aversion to ideological conflict, a desire to rehabilitate the Republican Party’s reputation for incompetence. But a candidate who derives support from an unyielding conviction that Obama’s presidency has been a disaster can’t premise his campaign on the recognition that everything’s basically OK—that the country will survive without a dramatic break from the past.
Romney has never been a crusader, and was thus ill suited to the ideological battles of 2012. His best political attribute has always been a reputation for managerial competence. But he cashed in on that virtue at the wrong time, and as such, has legions of supporters, who support him not because he was a successful governor and business man, but because he promised to wrest the country from the clutches of socialism. It’d be untenable for him to pander to that element in a climate of full employment, but it’d be just as untenable for him to step out of sync with his supporters by promising to be a responsible steward of a full-employment economy.
Changing circumstances have revealed a paradox at the heart of Romney’s latest candidacy. The Obama antipathy that makes Romney viable today is actually baggage from the last campaign, weighing him down precisely as the campaign he was born to run takes shape just out of reach.