Establishment Republican smackdown: Mitt vs. Jeb!

Did putting an exclamation point in the title generate any excitement for this post?  No?  How about if I had used three exclamation points in the title?  Let me know in the comments so I can plan future Election 2016 coverage accordingly.

On to the big news: Romney 2016 is for real.  So says Byron York at the Washington Examiner:

Is Mitt Romney, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination and lost in 2008, ran again and won the nomination but lost the general election in 2012, really thinking about running yet again for president in 2016? Many Republicans have simply assumed not. Romney has seemed to discourage such talk in media appearances, and there has been a general belief that after losing as the party’s nominee, the 67 year-old Romney would return to private life for good.

That belief is wrong. Romney is talking with advisers, consulting with his family, keeping a close eye on the emerging ’16 Republican field, and carefully weighing the pluses and minuses of another run. That doesn’t mean he will decide to do it, but it does mean that Mitt 2016 is a real possibility.

Nearly all of Romney’s 2012 circle of advisers, finance people, and close aides remains intact. Many developed an extraordinary loyalty to Romney, who, in turn, has kept in close touch with them. Romney talks to some of them quite frequently in conversations that cover daily news, foreign and domestic policy, Hillary Clinton, the Republican field — everything that might touch on a 2016 campaign. “Virtually the entire advisory group that surrounded Mitt in 2012 are eager for him to run, almost to a man and a woman,” says one plugged-in member of Romneyland.

A significant number of Romney’s top financial supporters from 2012 have decided not to commit to any other 2016 candidate until they hear a definitive word from Romney. They believe they are doing it with the tacit approval of Romney himself. “Spencer Zwick has never said specifically to everyone to keep your powder dry,” says the plugged-in supporter, referring to Romney’s former finance chairman who remains very close to Romney. “But the body language, the intonation, and the nuance are absolutely there.”

Ann Romney also seemed more open toward another run by her husband than she has in the past, essentially saying that she thought it highly likely that Jeb Bush would run, but if he decided not to, Mitt might get involved.  “Well, we will see, won’t we, Neil?” she said impishly to Neil Cavuto of Fox News.

York observes that Mitt Romney is “doing the kind of things a candidate might do at this stage in a race,” so he’s at least keeping his options open.  After his success in the 2012 primaries, no one knows better than Romney about the importance of gearing up a serious presidential effort early and laying out the kind of game plan that will carry a long national campaign through the inevitable reversals of fortune.  One lesson to take away from the “not-Romney” booms and busts of the 2012 primary season is that none of the not-Romneys had the planning or resources in place to capitalize on their moments of opportunity, while Romney had an operation durable enough to carry him through his low points.  Outsider candidates who leap into the race on a wing and a prayer will never have that kind of organization, nor will those who come to the starting gate with an impressive bankroll but little groundwork.  It’s worth thinking about when heartthrob candidates grab the spotlight.  Naturally Republican candidates will study what Romney did wrong in the general election, but they should also pay attention to what he did right during the primaries,  which are a different sort of contest.

What about the conventional wisdom that in the modern era, it’s one strike and you’re out for presidential contenders?  Romney himself seemed to feel that way after the 2012 race was over.  Of course, he was physically and emotionally exhausted at the time; whatever else voters conclude about a possible 2016 run, no one’s going to hold glum interviews from 2013 against him.  Presumably the immense “buyer’s remorse” in the electorate over the re-election of Barack Obama, and the way Romney has been proven right on just about every point of contention from the 2012 race, make another turn at bat seem possible to Romney supporters.

Strategically, if Romney ends up running against Hillary Clinton, he’d be able to parry her efforts to distance herself from Obama by noting that he was right about the issues first, while Clinton kept her alleged objections beneath a buttoned lip until now.  (An early salvo in that effort was Bill Clinton popping up to dismiss Obama’s big anti-corporate-inversions campaign – the centerpiece of what little Team Obama says about the economy these days – as a load of hooey.)  Romney might actually be ab le to pull that off.  If nothing else, it would be fun to watch.

There’s also the idea that Romney has already taken the worst shots Democrats can dish out, and if there’s a mood among voters that they made a mistake re-electing Obama, they won’t respond with much enthusiasm to warmed-over Obama 2012 campaign material.  Nobody really wants to hear all the whining about Bain Capital again, and American voters do tend to respond positively to entreaties about “moving forward” and “not dwelling in the past.”  And if there’s one Democrat candidate uniquely unsuited to snipe at anyone else about corporate connections, it’s Hillary Clinton, who’s already had a good deal of difficulty explaining why her well-heeled friends are tucking $250,000 in her pocket every time she gives a meaningless speech.

Mitt Romney is, by universal acclamation, a very smart man.  Would he learn from his mistakes and run a fine-tuned juggernaut of a campaign next time… or were those mistakes so deeply ingrained in his platform, philosophy, and personality that he can’t get completely around them?  Will voters jump at the chance to elect the guy a majority now believe they should have elected last time… or will that sensibility fade with Obama off the ticket, his prospective Democrat successors touting their disagreements with him (possibly including some from the Left) and voters not eager to dwell on the mistakes of the past?  Would a cleaner, faster, more focused GOP primary send Romney into battle as a stronger general-election candidate than he was last time… or would the new crop of Republican rivals leave him with the same number of wounds, in slightly different places?

And to go back to the Exclamation Point factor, is anybody going to get really excited about Romney 2.0, or Jeb 1.0 for that matter?  A technically perfect campaign and splendid candidate resume without excitement is like a high-performance sports car without gas.

It’s interesting that Romney supporters so obviously view him as the emergency backup moderate, in the event the primary unit fails.  It’s a bit depressing to think we might be in for another election in which the GOP Establishment views its main objective as thwarting conservatives, or that conservatives could come to be motivated largely by their dislike of the Establishment and its standard-bearer.  The problem with that kind of primary campaign is that it produces damaged, weakened general-election candidates who can’t count on the support of vanquished primary foes.  That’s part of what happened to Romney in 2012 – the stay-at-homes killed him.  It’s depressingly easy to imagine a repeat performance in 2016, especially after the 2014 congressional primaries (and maybe the outcome of the midterm elections) left a lot of conservatives sick to death of Establishment tactics.  The exit polls from 2014 should give us some clues as to how many conservatives feel they no longer have a home in the Republican Party.  Does either Mitt or Jeb seem like the kind of candidate who can rally the disaffected back to an exciting new GOP?

There wasn’t much electricity crackling in the air when Jeb Bush went to North Carolina to campaign for senatorial candidate Thom Tillis, judging by this account at the New York Times:

Standing alongside Thom Tillis, the North Carolina House speaker and Republican Senate candidate, Mr. Bush outlined his views on two of the issues he cares most passionately about: immigration policy and education standards. But as Mr. Bush made the case for an immigration overhaul and the Common Core standards, Mr. Tillis gently put distance between himself and his guest of honor, who had flown here from Florida on a dreary day to offer his endorsement in a race that could decide which party controls the Senate.

???You have to make it clear that amnesty shouldn???t be on the table,??? Mr. Tillis said, referring to how to address those immigrants currently in the country illegally. ???That doesn???t negate any opportunity to provide some with legal status and other things, but you only do that after you seal the borders and you make the problem no longer grow.???

Mr. Bush supports a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants and complained that not addressing the immigration system had ???done us harm economically.??? Speaking to a group of business owners in a lighting company???s warehouse, he said, ???Fixing a system that doesn???t work is a big thing that I think will restore and sustain economic growth for this country.???

???If it was framed in that way, I don???t think there???s a big debate in the Republican Party about the need to do this,??? he said. ???And my hope is with a Republican-controlled Senate, we can begin to see a conversation about how to go about doing that.???

But an easy resolution is not likely in his party. After a reporter noted that Mr. Bush???s immigration stance was more ???conciliatory,??? the former governor chuckled and the Republicans in the audience let out a brief, nervous laugh.

I remember all the brief, nervous laughs from 2012.  I was hoping for something different next time.

May I offer a bit of advice to the Establishment?  You’re far better off finding a genuine conservative you can work with, instead of trying to beat conservatives to a bloody pulp in the primaries, and then assuming they’ll show up on Election Day out of a burning desire to defeat the Democrat.  I really don’t think that’s going to work any more.  There’s too much accumulated bad blood.  And you’re struggling against the momentum of history – a momentum carrying America to a very bad place, to be sure, but a powerful force nonetheless.  The Left is extremely rich and powerful; the government it venerates is very good at defending itself against reform, and it’s growing on automatic pilot.  The system may be corrupt and doomed, but it has tremendous inertia.

Conservative voters understand that, which is why they’re not very excited about what they perceive as Establishment Republicans who offer minor discounts on the cost of that system at best, and just want a piece of the action at worst.  The task ahead is huge, and time is short.  Amnesty-minded moderates are part of the problem, not part of the solution.  Conservatives want someone who seems serious about accomplishing the big job they have in mind, someone who understands and articulates both problems and solutions.  If they don’t see someone like that on the ballot, many of them will conclude there’s not much point in voting – why battle the inertia of the doomed Leviathan if the best you can hope to do is slow it down a little?  That’s where the excitement factor comes in.

Democrats have a much easier road to the White House now.  All they have to do is swap out the media-approved figurehead for the system; it’s like changing a light bulb.  The system itself will bring large constituencies to the polls automatically.  The Democrat candidate need only lay out some big new promises for government programs that will fix every problem, assure the public that people they hate will pay for everything, and they’re all set.  Republicans cannot win presidential elections that way.  Among other things, they’ll never be allowed to demonize either Democrat candidates or segments of their voting base, the way Democrats can hit them.  The “moderate Republican” game plan seems like a sure-fire way to slide a respectable candidate into second place with a five-point loss.

The argument that a candidate must also be electable is reasonable, but conservatives charge the GOP Establishment with doing its part to make some decent candidates unelectable, joining in the Left’s assaults to knock them out of primary contention.  There is also the concern that “electability” means winning the approval of media culture… which ultimately translates to running the sort of Republican candidate that conservatives will conclude is so similar to the Democrat that they don’t give a damn about voting.  2016 has to be a cooperative effort by the entire Republican Party, the way 2012 wasn’t.  And that’s the kind of effort that needs to be in the planning stages now.