Mitt ’16 Is “For Real”

Whatever you think of Byron York’s opinions, his reporting is pretty good, and if he says the possibility of Mitt Romney running for president is lively and real, I believe it. Sounds like it could come down to whether the other Establishment favorite, Jeb Bush, pulls the trigger:

The key question for Romney, according to those who have talked to him, is whether former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush decides to run. Romney is said to believe that, other than himself, Bush is the only one of the current Republican field who could beat Hillary Clinton in a general election. If Bush jumps in the race, this line of thinking goes, Romney would not run.

All I’d say about this “choice” of Mitt and Jebbie is that the former has a very good head start in selling out his policy views to the wants and needs of the GOP’s conservative activist base. Jeb hasn’t even repudiated his support for Common Core, which he will likely have to do if he wants to become president any time soon.

But what’s the historical precedent for another Romney run? It’s not real good. Romney hands like to cite Ronald Reagan as an example of “the third time” being “a charm.” But Reagan’s 1968 “race” began at the Republican National Convention and lasted less than a week, and he never lost as the party nominee. Exactly one former losing major-party presidential nominee (I’m not counting Grover Cleveland, who won before he lost before he won) has gone on to the White House: Richard Nixon. And even His Trickiness took a cycle off after one of the closest losses in presidential history.

Three losing major-party nominees have managed to win a second nomination the next cycle: William Jennings Bryan (1896-1900), Thomas Dewey (1944-48) and Adlai Stevenson (1952-56). Bryan and Stevenson were beloved figures among their party’s activists. And so we come to the obvious analog to Mitt, Tom Dewey. Like Romney, he ran unsuccessfully for the presidential nomination the first time out (in 1940), and lost to an incumbent president second time out. His 1948 campaign was a struggle, as he lost a couple of primaries to Harold Stassen (don’t laugh–Stassen was a real force that year) and only overcame Stassen and Robert Taft on the third ballot at the convention. Dewey did, however, have something going for him in 1948 that Mitt could not match: he won landslide re-election as governor of New York in 1946.

The rest, of course, is well-known history, as Dewey managed to lose what was considered a huge lead over Harry Truman, whose Democratic Party had fractured to the right (via Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat campaign) and the left (with Henry Wallace running on the Progressive ticket). If Mitt and his people have even examined the precedent, they’d probably figure Romney is too competent to make the kind of mistakes Dewey made. In his own time, Dewey was considered to be a pro’s pro when it came to political maneuvering; indeed, he redeemed his career in 1952 by serving as the midwife to the Eisenhower candidacy.

If York is right, we’ll have plenty of time to revisit the historical argument–or may instead be giving a long look at the history of presidential family dynasties.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.