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September 2, 2014

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Romney may make a good president, but he’s a terrible candidate

On paper, Mitt Romney looked to be ideal presidential material. There was the hair and the lantern-jaw good looks, naturally, and more substantively his intellect, temperament and enormous breadth of experience. Then came the humiliations of 2012, a summer filled with missteps culminating in a sweeping loss that left Romney seemingly gone forever from the national stage, an exit welcomed by conservatives who never saw him as one of their own.

Yet Romney has now re-emerged as a plausible — at least in the minds of some journalists and supporters — 2016 GOP presidential nominee. The campaign stumbles and bumbles forgotten, it is the paper-perfect candidate who now entices.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted a year after the election found much buyers’ remorse, with the former Massachusetts governor winning handily, 49 to 45 percent, in a hypothetical rematch with Barack Obama. That was followed by the release of a remarkable and humanizing documentary, “Mitt,” by filmmaker Greg Whiteley. The behind-the-scenes look at the candidate and his family paints a far different picture than the robotic caricature we saw during the campaign. He’s funny, caring, thoughtful and deeply committed to the betterment of the country. After seeing it, would you want to have a beer with the guy? Yes — although he’d be drinking an O’Doul’s.

Then too, Republicans are desperate to avoid the parade of clowns from 2012’s primary season: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Donald Trump. The clowns squabbled with one another, alienated voters, and prevented the party from throwing its weight behind one front-runner early in the campaign season. The lesson for the next election is obvious. For a while, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed like someone who could clear the field. Now, thanks to Bridgegate, that’s in doubt. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush could also quickly line up support, but many think he’s unwilling.

That leaves Mitt. Romney’s denials notwithstanding (“No, no, no ...” he told The New York Times 11 times last month), the excitement over Mitt is such that the National Journal just headlined a story, “Mitt Romney is the 2016 Republican front-runner.”

I understand how the passage of time can blur the past, but what we have here is not nostalgia but amnesia. Romney may well make a good president, but he’s a lousy candidate. The Republicans choose him again at their peril.

Romney’s failings on the stump seem a contradiction: He was both not political enough while at the same time far too much so. On one hand, a good candidate understands the impact of his words. Instead, Romney gave us a seemingly never-ending series of gaffes: “the 47 percent,” “middle income is $200,000 to $250,000,” “$10,000 bet?” “I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners,” “binders full of women,” “I like being able to fire people” and “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Each of these became a story, drowning out whatever message the campaign was trying to send. Gaffes happen, of course (remember Obama telling Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, “After my election, I have more flexibility”?) but their ubiquity suggested a man who simply cannot control himself under the public spotlight.

On the other hand, Romney seemed a creature of value-free politics. In Whiteley’s documentary, he’s seen railing against the perception of himself as the “flipping Mormon,” but the image was well-earned. For the number of times it was raised during the campaign, Romney never had a good response to why he could support health care reform in Massachusetts (and call it a “model” for the nation) and yet oppose Obamacare. And the same problem affected a whole host of issues, from abortion choice to global warming. Romney, a man who is more manager and technocrat than an ideologue, came across as craven, willing to say anything to please an audience.

Romney’s an introspective man. Perhaps these are faults he could fix in another run or perhaps — and more likely — they are traits inherent to his character. He’s ill-suited to the tumult, pressures and artifice of the campaign trail. “I think I’m a flawed candidate,” Romney says at one point during “Mitt,” and the GOP should take him at his word. It’s time to move on.

Tom Keane is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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