Last month I suggested Charlie Baker’s path from defeat to the Corner Office might be a model for Mitt Romney’s third run for the White House.
Today I’d like to suggest another path that the former Governor should seriously consider. That’s the one taken by John Kerry.
Neither man is likely to appreciate the comparison but they share an important history as the Bay State’s two most recent presidential challengers who came close (quite close in Kerry’s case) and seriously considered entering the presidential sweepstakes again.
After losing in 2004, Kerry returned to the Senate and dropped hints of another presidential run. After ultimately opting against it, he ascended to the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2009 and then to the State Department in 2013.
As Secretary of State, Kerry has a position he was long destined to hold. Now the world’s most important diplomat and senior member of the President’s cabinet, Kerry will eventually retire from State and enter a post-Cabinet world of writing, analysis, and speechmaking. He’ll live the life of an elder statesman to his party and to his nation.
That path wasn’t preordained. Kerry found himself politically vulnerable two years after the ’04 race due, in part, to a failed attempt at humor during a highly charged election season. A run in ’08 could have easily damaged him further.
Romney finds himself in a somewhat different space, politically. He emerged from the recent midterms strengthened within his party and that reality is likely fueling his continued ambitions for the White House. Unlike Kerry, who could channel his ambitions into his Senate seat and chairmanship, Romney doesn’t hold a powerful perch.
But the prospect of losing the nomination or the general election has got to weigh heavily on Romney’s close circle. Of course no one goes into such a race thinking about how they might lose. But the historical reality is that no person in contemporary politics has lost a general election, secured a second nomination four years later, and won the presidency. Richard Nixon did it after an eight-year interval during a very different period in presidential politics.
A third bid could easily diminish him beyond repair. He is well liked by many supporters and some will back a ’16 bid. But many others will throw their support elsewhere. Leading candidates will not step aside for him. He’ll be their target. The risk is not just that he loses but that he becomes a historical footnote for all the wrong reasons.
Of course, Reagan cinched it on his third attempt. But he didn’t lose as a general election nominee in ’76. Had he done so, many others would have filled the space in 1980. And Romney’s space in the race is going to be energetically filled by Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker and probably others. The path to the nomination is far less clear in ’16 than it was in ’12.
But the other path is wide open. Should he opt out, he’ll become the instant elder statesmen in a party that is sorely lacking in them. He’ll be sought after for support, for counsel, and for future service. Few people in Romney’s position have this path open to them so soon after losing the White House but the opportunity may be lost in the haze of his presidential ambitions.