The Republican presidential primary field seems to be growing by one candidate every week, on average. Today, Scott Walker announced that he will seek his party’s nomination for the presidency, and at least two more Republicans are expected to declare their candidacies before the summer is finished. At the same time, even as so many GOP governors, congressmen, and businessmen have entered the race, there are still some Republicans whose absence from the primary field is somewhat notable. None of the four politicians who served on the party’s last two tickets are seeking the presidency this year. John McCain has remained in the Senate, continuing to strengthen his position as a leading voice in that body on issues related to foreign policy. Paul Ryan has remained in the House of Representatives, receiving the much-coveted chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, from which he is able to exert incredible influence on the fiscal management of the United States federal government. While McCain and Ryan have held on to elected office, Sarah Palin translated her charismatic, conservative brand into fundraising dynamite for Tea Party candidates in the elections of 2010 and 2012. Meanwhile, where did Mitt Romney go?
After his election loss in 2012, Mitt Romney received scorn from both the conservative and moderate wings of the Republican party. The GOP establishment crowd thought that he had damaged himself irreparably by taking a position on immigration reform that alienated wide portions of Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing electorate in the country. The conservative grassroots crowd thought that he had limited his appeal to the party base by avoiding chest-thumping declarations of his conservative commitments. And now, both sides see in the 2016 primary field the correct “answers” to the questions they feel that Romney got wrong. For Republican moderates, candidates like Jeb Bush, with his centrist approach to immigration reform and his ability to tip the scales in the battleground state of Florida, represent the formula that could win in 2016. For Republican conservatives, “true believers” like Ted Cruz and Ben Carson and Scott Walker are the party’s only way to return to the White House after what will have been eight years outside in the cold.
It’s this restlessness among Republicans, this exhaustion with losing national elections, this sense of urgency to find a nominee that can defeat Hillary Clinton that has created an environment in the party in which so many candidates can seek the nomination. And now, the party is struggling to filter the field, to separate the political wheat from the chaff, to elevate the candidates who actually have a chance of winning and ostracize the candidates who have no chances at all. These sorts of attempts can be seen in the recent announcement that only the top ten candidates in several national polls leading up to the first primary debate on Fox News will be allowed to participate in the event. This approach, that of using polls of registered Republicans or likely Republican primary voters, depends almost entirely on the assumption that the party faithful are capable of balancing their own ideological principles with political pragmatism. And therefore, strong showings in the polls for bombastic candidates like Donald Trump reveal the inherent risks in this approach, because, Trump’s merits aside, it can be hard to argue that such a large crowd of Republicans supports Trump out of a pragmatist, realpolitik impulse.
What, then, is a better means by which the Republican primary field can be filtered and sorted? How, then, can the coming months reflect a party that is vibrant, dynamic, and yet still able to reach a winning consensus? How can Republicans learn from their previous nominees’ mistakes and apply those lessons to the upcoming primaries in concrete ways? It would seem that Mitt Romney might have the answer; in order for the Republican primary circus to produce a nominee, it needs a ringmaster like him.
In recent months, Romney has been doing two very important things: reaching out to the various candidates in the Republican field, and also “getting out ahead” of those candidates on issues that have previously been sources of voters’ disaffection for the GOP. One example of the former is Romney’s recent hosting of Chris Christie and Marco Rubio on the weekend of Independence Day at his vacation home in New Hampshire. An example of the latter would be Romney’s early – and unmistakably clear – call for the Confederate flag to be removed from the South Carolina state capitol grounds. In this regard, Romney has been ironing out some of the political “wrinkles” ahead for Republican presidential candidates, and providing valuable cover for prominent establishment GOP candidates who may be hesitant to provoke the wrath of some in the conservative grassroots.
At the same time, Romney is avoiding direct confrontation with figures in the Republican party that are advocating for a more conservative nominee. He isn’t like Chris Christie or Rick Perry or Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or Donald Trump or Lindsey Graham, all of whom relish the opportunity to win over media coverage by picking fights with each other about issues like national security and immigration reform. While it’s somewhat obvious that Romney’s presence as an influential voice within the GOP benefits the moderates more than the conservatives, even the grassroots Republicans and the Tea Party are hesitant to accuse him of selling out his principles for the sake of pragmatism, or to question his commitment to the party’s success.
To be clear, I’m not saying that Mitt Romney’s personal preferences will be the means by which Republicans distinguish the viable primary candidates from the others, or that they should be. Obviously, Republican primary voters are the ultimate decision-makers when it comes to the party’s nomination. However, if the party’s national convention in Cleveland in 2016 turns into something of a circus, with no one candidate having the necessary amount of delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot, the GOP will need a ringmaster. So, why not Romney, the consensus-builder and the party elder who’s increasingly becoming its moral voice?
Photo Credit: Chris Devers