A Liberal Romney Coulda Been a Contender

It’s too bad Mitt Romney decided against running in 2016. If the Republican Party were smarter, it would run him.

(Maybe.)

I say this as someone who wrote reams of copy about his 2012 campaign, much of it critical, much of it antagonistic. But if Romney’s public statements in the days since he floated the idea of running a third time are any indication, he would have run as a liberal Republican, which is to say, like himself.

Another way of putting it: he’d run like his dad.

George Romney was a civil-rights warrior so committed to the principles of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, he threatened to nix federal funding for a Detroit suburb that resisted efforts to integrate housing.

“The youth of this nation, the minorities of this nation, the discriminated of this nation are not going to wait for ‘nature to take its course,'” Romney is reported to have said. “What is really at issue here is responsibility—moral responsibility.”

The policies Romney pursued were sometimes politically dicey for President Richard Nixon, who neither shared Romney’s views on race nor was willing to risk support among Northern white suburban voters in the name of moral principle.

One scholar wrote that Romney “came surprisingly close to imple­menting unpopular anti-discrimination policies,” but failed in large part because of Nixon’s commitment to electoral race-baiting and indebtedness to the South. Shortly after Nixon won reelection in 1972, Romney resigned.

In a way, you could say (a la Ronald Reagan), that George Romney didn’t leave the Republican Party. The party left him.

When his son first considered having third go at the GOP presidential primary, he sounded surprisingly liberal with comments on climate change, poverty and public education. Specifically, that global warming is anthropogenic; that poverty is something government can do something about; that public-school teachers should be adequately paid.

I don’t want to make too much of this. After all, Mitt Romney turned lying into an art form in 2012. I don’t think anyone can say for sure what he really believes. But recent public statements are a kind of return to form. As Massachusetts governor, he was an ideological moderate who also supported abortion rights, gun-control laws and gay marriage.

Even David Corn was impressed.

You’ll recall that David Corn, a reporter for Mother Jones magazine, revealed for the first time that Romney had said, in private, that he could write off 47 percent of voters, because they are dependent on free handouts. Corn can credibly claim he mortally wounded Romney’s campaign.

“Yet in public remarks, Romney has been sounding like a born-again lefty,” Corn wrote approvingly. “Liberals across the land ought not scoff at the remodeled Romney. They should encourage him to return to the political battlefield.”

Well, now we know he won’t.

I suspect Romney thought he had a chance a third time, because Jeb Bush said he’s considering a run. The Bush brand is by no means a shoo-in, given the legacy of George W. Bush. Conservatives still chafe at the memory of his years in the White House when federal deficits didn’t matter, nation-building in Iraq was paramount, and friends-of-Bush were lining up at the trough. From Romney’s point of view, if another Bush can win conservatives, why couldn’t he?

The reason is there can be only one. Conservatives like Ted Cruz are a dime a dozen. They litter the candidate field and weaken its overall impact. There are only so many men in the party with establishment heft. Once Jeb Bush made his move, the entire GOP constellation started moving with him, like satellites being pulled along by the gravity of drifting planets.

I’m being coy when I say the Republican Party should run Romney, but only half coy. Even during the 2012 primary, I thought he would be a good antidote to the Southernization of the Republican Party and its long journey toward being a regional party without hope of achieving national objectives.

That’s probably overstating things a bit, but it’s not without a basis. In 1960, the Republicans dreamed of taking the South away from the Democrats. They were eager to abandon the party’s founding principles in favor of a political majority.

Well, they got it. And the result is a national reputation for being at odds with the course of American history. A Romney who stood firmly on the liberal Republican ideals of his father might have helped correct that course. Now, we’ll never know.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.