Mitt Romney is back. After losing the 2012 presidential race to Barack Obama the defeated Republican nominee stepped out of the spotlight and into what many thought would be a long, quiet retirement from political life. In recent weeks, as the Obama Administration has descended into chaos and near irrelevancy, Mitt Romney has re-emerged singing the sweetest refrain in politics: “I told you so.”
The former Massachusetts governor and his erstwhile running mate Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin were reunited recently and the gathering ended with Ryan – himself considered to be a 2016 presidential contender – wishing for another Romney run. Speculation about a possible third Romney presidential bid has grown as buyers’ remorse over an increasingly distant and detached Barack Obama grows and no clear front-runner has emerged from the current crop of potential GOP presidential candidates.
But Ryan’s wishful thinking might be a disaster in the making for the GOP. There are reasons why Romney lost in 2012 despite the unpopularity of Obamacare and the lingering Great Recession. Romney would not only be fighting past demons, he would also be trying to accomplish something very rare in presidential politics: being nominated for a second time and winning after having lost.
Since the advent of the current two-party system in the mid-1800s no nominee has lost a presidential election and come back four years later to claim the White House. The only successful two time nominee was Richard M. Nixon, who lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960, but then sat out the 1964 election before running and winning in 1968. Three others have been nominated by their party in consecutive elections, and all lost.
William Jennings Bryan was nominated by the Democrats in 1896 and 1900 losing to Republican William McKinley. Bryan was nominated again in 1908, losing that election to William Howard Taft. Thomas Dewey received back-to-back Republican nominations in 1944 and 1948, losing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. The Democrats tried sticking with the same horse in 1952 and 1956, but Adlai Stevenson lost to Dwight Eisenhower both times.
In an historic anomaly, incumbent Grover Cleveland lost the 1888 presidential election to Benjamin Harrison, but was renominated by the Democrats in 1892 and became the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.
Setting the unique circumstance of Grover Cleveland aside, you have to go all the way back to the election of 1840 to find the last time a presidential candidate received consecutive party nominations and won after having lost. In 1836 William Henry Harrison lost to Martin Van Buren, but was renominated by the Whigs and ousted Van Buren in 1840. Even that didn’t end well as Harrison became the first U.S. president to die in office just one month after taking the oath.
Romney’s difficulty in mounting yet another presidential bid is more than just historic. Recall that during the 2012 nomination contest GOP voters turned to a number of other suitors before Romney prevailed. At various times Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and finally Rick Santorum surged ahead of Romney who prevailed only by capitalizing on the mistakes of the other candidates and incinerating them with negative television ads.
It was clear Republican primary voters were desperately seeking an alternative to Romney. Despite a high level of GOP antipathy toward Barack Obama, a predicted Republican edge in voter turn-out failed to materialize in November of 2012. That was due partly to the Romney campaign’s ineptitude at running a get-out-the-vote effort, but also reflected a general lack of enthusiasm for the candidate, especially among the conservative grassroots.
As the Republican Party begins the process of selecting its next nominee it should remember that presidential campaigns are about the future, not the past. It is the candidate who offers the best hope for the future who wins. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, although polar opposites, each appealed to America’s hopes and dreams for the future.
We cannot go “back to the future” in 2016. The time has come to move past the Romneys, Bushes and Clintons and, as John F. Kennedy once observed, pass the torch to a new generation of Americans. The party that does that best will be the one which next occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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