If reform-conservative pundit Reihan Salam gets his way, Mitt Romney will join Ronald Reagan on the list of Republican governors of coastal states who were elected president of the United States on their third try. In a Friday column for Slate, Salam wrote that he’s “delighted” about “speculation” that Romney “is at least considering another presidential run.”
Salam argued that if Romney does mount another campaign, he should present himself as a “populist” wonk opposed to “the outsize power of the megabanks and in favor of a more competitive and inclusive capitalism.” Such a persona, Salam surmised, would be closer to the real Mitt than the self-described “severely conservative” version of two years ago: “I tend to think that Romney’s struggles in 2012 flowed from his defensiveness and his fear of alienating Tea Party conservatives he didn’t truly understand.”
From Salam’s piece (emphasis added):
[T]here is…a case to be made that it’s time for another Romney campaign.
…The GOP won’t succeed until its candidates convince Americans that their policies will deliver upward mobility for all Americans, and not just the rich. Romney was pretty much the worst possible ambassador for a more populist conservatism…[The 47-percent tape] profoundly damaged the conservative cause by confirming the worst suspicions of its critics…
…I tend to think that Romney’s struggles in 2012 flowed from his defensiveness and his fear of alienating Tea Party conservatives he didn’t truly understand. When Romney was himself, as he was during his first debate with the president, he seemed solid and self-assured. If Romney did indeed decide to run again, he’d be wise to jettison his old playbook and to instead detail how he, as a practitioner of creative destruction and disruptive innovation and all the rest, can help make these powerful economic forces work for all Americans. He could build a new presidential campaign around the need to reform and renew America’s safety net, to make it fiscally sustainable while also making it more effective. Imagine if Romney, having been caricatured as a cat’s-paw of the Wall Street overclass, decided to rail against the outsize power of the megabanks and in favor of a more competitive and inclusive capitalism. If we let Romney be Romney, we might find the populist the party needs…
There is precedent for a two-time loser finally winning the presidency on his third try. Ronald Reagan made a last-ditch effort to secure the GOP nomination in 1968. He nearly wrested it from an incumbent president in 1976. But it was only in 1980 that Reagan, at age 69, finally won. Of course, Reagan was famously charismatic, and he had been a conservative folk hero for years by the time he finally won the Republican nomination. The same can’t be said of Romney.
Nevertheless, there is something to the Reagan parallel. Though he commanded the loyalty of conservatives, Reagan was a decidedly pragmatic governor of California who acquiesced to tax increases, the liberalization of the state’s abortion laws, and other measures that should by all rights have scandalized the right. By the time Reagan ran against Gerald Ford in 1976, however, he presented himself as a conservative purist, devoted to devolving power to state governments and taking a tougher line against the Soviet empire. Between 1976 and 1980, he again underwent another subtle but important shift, smoothing some of his ideological rough edges and offering a more optimistic brand of conservatism tailor-made to appeal to voters who had grown tired of Carter-era malaise.
Could Mitt Romney pull off a similar feat? I wouldn’t rule it out.