Shades of 2012! The previous Republican ticket just reappeared from the mists of the past to issue pronouncements about 2016. The ex-VP nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan, said the expected: He isn't running. The Crystal Ball was so sure of his non-candidacy that we didn't even include him anywhere in our seven tiers last month, to the consternation of some readers.
The presidential half of the '12 ticket, however, had a very different declaration to make. The newfound willingness of Mitt Romney to "consider" a third candidacy for the White House stunned many observers; privately, Romney was said to have all but affirmed to some chief backers that he'd be on the ballot again.
Surprise was a reasonable reaction. Romney had repeatedly disavowed any desire to put on his running shoes again, noting that he had had his chance and telling The New York Times a year ago: "Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no." Eleven no's — and it turns out they still didn't add up to a durable Sherman-esque declaration.
The Crystal Ball took Romney at his word. He convinced us by about the seventh "no." You would think we'd been around long enough never to take a politician at his word when it involves the presidency. NO has a way of becoming YES when circumstances allow (see Obama, Barack in 2007).
Plus, everybody recalls the old adage that the only cure for presidential ambition is comfy placement in a pine box six feet under.
There has been much speculation about the "tensions" between Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush that could have precipitated this new wrinkle. Maybe there are some strains, but the main tension is that each of them wants to be in the Oval Office. Plenty of political friends and acquaintances run against each other when they are ambitious for the same office.
It is easy to come up with rationales to support a challenge: "The other candidate is too flawed to win," "I have seniority," "My donors, consultants, and family have told me I'd make a much better president," etc.
As the old saying goes, it's a free country and any natural-born citizen age 35 and older can run for the White House. But the cruel, less democratic reality is that in any given election year, there are no more than a couple dozen individuals in a position to make a serious attempt. Those aren't bad odds if you're among that elite group, and if you can imagine a convincing path to the glory, honor, and history-making potential of being commander-in-chief, you're likely to make the run.
Before Friday's announcement (actually, a press leak from Romney's faithful circle), the Crystal Ball put Romney at the top of our Tier Four — "Establishment Alternatives." Our view was that if the demolition derby of the nominating process eliminated or severely damaged the other top establishment candidates, Romney would be tapped to ride to the rescue. Romney would be driving a used American Motors car (hat tip to father George Romney), but the auto would be in better shape than his rivals' vehicles. And after his infamous "47%" gaffe in 2012, not to mention his mansion's car elevator, Mitt wouldn't want to be seen in an expensive sedan anyway.
The Crystal Ball is willing to play along, and for all we know, Mitt Romney will follow through and go the distance. Starting out, he certainly belongs at the top of our Tier Two: "The Other Big Boys." So the order among the top contenders is now Bush in Tier One, followed by Tier Two's Romney, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie, in that order. (The full presidential rankings for both parties are available on our website.)
Most people are probably like us, though, and still need a lot of convincing that Romney can pull this off. No question Romney has slowed Jeb-mentum and kept some big donors and top operatives from hopping aboard the nascent Bush bandwagon. The former Massachusetts governor is also burning up the phone lines to close associates, apparently indicating that he is in the race. Reportedly, his wife, Ann, once vehemently opposed to another White House run, has signaled she is finally reconciled to the idea because her husband wants and needs the challenge.
Yet Romney hasn't yet said definitively that his hat is in the ring; in that way, he is testing the waters. Based on everything we've seen and heard, Romney will find the waters chilly. The party's ex-nominee is getting blowback from three groups: mainstream Republicans who think he threw away the '12 election; the conservative base that never trusted his claims of conservatism (though they seem to trust Bush even less); and the news media, which will quickly revive all the controversies that dogged him in past campaigns. Videotape lives forever, and no politician can declare prior gaffes to be old news and off limits.
Back in 1968, in a much less aggressive news environment, Richard Nixon was able to concoct and project a "new Nixon" on the stump and in his ads. Can any candidate with a record as long as Mitt Romney do the same in 2016? Most changes in position or image are regarded as hypocritical flip-flopping, not natural evolution. There's some evidence to support the criticism. Lest we forget, the new Nixon turned out to be a facsimile of the old one.
Perhaps Romney sees himself in some way as Ronald Reagan, who was elected on his third try in 1980 after defeats for the Republican nomination in 1968 and 1976. Reagan learned from the losses and kept building on past efforts. Reagan and Romney aren't comparable in other ways; for instance, Romney has never commanded the fervent loyalty of the GOP base as Reagan did.
Alternately, if we can switch parties for a moment, Mitt might turn out to be a Republican Adlai Stevenson, whose two respectable campaigns in 1952 and 1956 dissolved into an embarrassing last hurrah in 1960. Stevenson believed he was entitled to a third try when the chances of winning were better, having carried the Democratic banner twice against heavy odds. His attempt fizzled at the '60 party convention.
Historical analogies are far from perfect. For one thing, it's hard to criticize Romney about entitlement when leading candidates include a Bush and a Clinton. Romney is neither Reagan nor Stevenson. The 2016 race will not be exactly like any that have come before.
That is especially true on the GOP side. The free-for-all nature of the nominating battle is so far defined by ahistorical chaos. Republicans were once known as the orderly party that always picked their crown prince. At least for now, it appears the GOP owns the '16 trademark on bedlam, and the party's logical theme song is "Ball of Confusion" by The Temptations. We should remember this when we see analyses (by the dozen) confidently asserting that Romney's entry helps — or does it hurt? — Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, and a host of other candidates. No one could know at this point. The permutations in a large field are endless.
Meanwhile, often-quarrelsome Democrats seem on track to obediently choose their crown princess. Caution: The next year could be full of surprises for Democrats, too.
The early contrast between the parties certainly does not predict the November 2016 results. A disorderly nominating clash can nonetheless yield a winner, and uncompetitive primaries can produce a loser.
However, for the moment, it's obvious which side is more interesting to watch!
This column was originally published at The Crystal Ball.