In the days following Ted Kennedy’s death, I was surprised to see commentary as to why Mitt Romney would be well-served by running for Senate. This would have been a flagrantly bad idea for the GOP’s special election prospects and for the future of Romney’s career, and Romney himself wasted little time taking himself out of consideration.
Romney might have been the last Republican to enjoy statewide success in Massachusetts, but his gubernatorial victory occurred well before his presidential campaign. Since then, he has become one of the country’s most mainstream Republican voice. He has taken painstaking care to mimic conservatives on most issues - including abortion, leaving him nowhere to go in Massachusetts.
While this would hold in a gubernatorial race, it’s all the more true in a federal contest, when national issues and voters’ desire not to rebuke Obama are bound to come in play. As such, Republicans would be far better served nominating a candidate who can credibly distance himself from the national party and position himself as a moderate the way Romney did in 1994 (when he defended gay rights and criticized Reagan) and 2002. We can argue as to whether the GOP can find any such candidate - and there are at least some names mentioned, but it’s hardly debatable that the post-2008 Romney stands no chance of succeeding.
Nor can I even imagine a scenario under which he would want to try. What would be the best case scenario for Romney? He runs, manages to convince Massachusetts voters that he is moderate enough to represent them, gets elected to the Senate and possibly even serves a long career. That would be ideal for dozens of politicians, but not for Romney.
Ever since he became governor in 2002, Romney has been thinking of little else than the White House. The son of a politician whose presidential aspirations came crashing down because of his opposition to Vietnam, Mitt Romney is not going to let anything get on the way of his own ambitions. To win the presidency, he needed some type of political springboard - businessmen can run for Senators, but it is a stretch for them to run for the White House without having ever held elected office.
Hence his decision to run for Senate in 1994 and governor in 2002. Hence the relatively moderate profile he had to craft himself to succeed in as blue a state as Massachusetts.
But the fact that he started drifting to the right during his first (and only) term left no doubt as to where his mind was turned, and no one was surprised when he announced he would not seek re-election in 2006. His maneuvers were almost successful and got him closer to the Republican nomination than anyone not named McCain. (I am aware that Mike Huckabee lasted longer than Romney, but it would have been tough to imagine the latter losing had he prevailed in either Iowa or New Hampshire.)
Ever since his presidential loss, Romney has been positioning himself for a repeat run. In 2008, he emerged as one of McCain’s most loyal surrogates - so much so that he went from one of the Arizona Senator’s most despite enemies to one of the front-runners to be McCain’s running mate. Since then, he has perfectly balanced the need to keep his name in the public spotlight and the need to remain far away not to be burned by day-to-day vicissitudes; he has made high-profile donations to Republican congressmen and he has written newspaper op-eds, but not enough as to become part of the chattering class.
As a result, Romney is now in a position few people could have foreseen in February 2008 - one of the GOP’s only obvious leaders at a time Sarah Palin, Mike Sanford, Bobby Jindal or John Ensign have all seen their fortunes fall. (A side note: Today marks the one year anniversary of Palin’s introduction to the national stage!) And that makes him an obvious frontrunner for the GOP’s 2012 nomination.
So why would Romney possibly want to run for Senate? If he did so without moving back towards the center, he would most likely suffer a disastrous loss that would make him look like an unviable repeat loser. Nixon might have come managed a comeback after back-to-back losses, but few other such dramatic comebacks come to mind - and Nixon had served as vice-president.
If he ran as a moderate, he would burn all the bridges he has spent years building at a time conservatives are finally to warm to him - not to mention that he would look like even more of an opportunist than he did during his 2008 campaign. A loss would him no where to go: His electability would be discredited, his conservative credentials would be in ruin and he would have vindicated every caricature his critics made of him.
If he somehow convinced Massachusetts voters that his re-conversion was genuine, it would still mean forgoing presidential aspirations - not only for the primary-related ideological reasons I listed above but also because the Senate is the worst springboard for the presidency: 2008 was the first time in 48 years a Senator entered the White House but it’s hard not to notice that both his major opponents were also Senators. Romney would find himself a perennially vulnerable Senator stuck in a job he does not want with no obvious way to gain a promotion to the job from which his father was also barred. And that’s the best case scenario in which a Romney run is successful.
This means that the only people who have to lament Romney’s decision not to run for Senate are his potential Republican presidential rivals, Massachusetts Democrats who want to hold on to Kennedy’s seat and arguably the White House - depending on whether you think Romney would be Obama’s strongest 2012 rival, which is a whole other discussion.