Meet the real Mitt Romney. The Mitt Romney you thought you knew from 2012, from 2008, from his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, from his run for the Senate against Teddy Kennedy—those versions of Mitt Romney were the constructs of political consultants, artifices designed to win elections but nowhere near the real Mitt Romney.
The real Romney is the man you saw in the postelection documentary Mitt, a man who is loose and likable, quirky and congenial, genuine and true. This is what we are to believe about the 2016 version of Mitt Romney, the one now being beta-tested for a third possible run for the presidency.
“If he runs again in 2016, Romney is determined to rebrand himself as authentic.” That’s how Philip Rucker of the Washington Post put it in an article last week. The new authenticity campaign will likely be headquartered in Utah, home of the Mormon church, where Romney has resettled as he contemplates another presidential bid. In previous campaigns, Rucker reports, “political consultants urged him to play down his Mormonism” out of fear that bigotry and narrow-mindedness would cost him votes.
This time it will be different. As part of the effort to repackage this Romney as real and unscripted, he is talking about his faith and even “crack[ing] jokes about Joseph Smith’s polygamy.”
Those same political advisers were responsible for Romney’s decision to focus less on himself and more on the economy and Barack Obama. “Last time, consultants argued it was a referendum campaign and that was what the campaign’s central message should be,” Tagg Romney, the candidate’s oldest son, told the Post.
All of that is in the past. The new Mitt Romney—the real Mitt Romney—is positioning himself as carefree and spontaneous, as a consequences-be-damned paragon of authenticity.
So last week, on a trip to Mississippi, Romney allowed political reporters to tag along with him as he ate barbecue with Dan Mullen, the head football coach at Mississippi State University. Romney told reporters he was breaking an “unwritten rule” of campaigning by eating in front of the cameras. The risk, of course, is that an unflattering photograph could be splashed across the front pages of newspapers or that a candidate might be captured in an ungraceful moment with food on his chin or a dab of sauce on his nose.
The new Romney wants you to know he doesn’t care. “I’m going to eat whether the cameras are here or not,” he declared last week.
Reporters were allowed to listen in on the conversation between Mullen and Romney, a chat in which the once and possibly future candidate “peppered Mr. Mullen with questions ostensibly about football,” as Jonathan Martin of the New York Times put it. Romney wanted to know how Mullen “handles the news media glare” and deals with “the agony of losing and the swift judgments based on success” or the lack of it.
Complicating matters for the new, authentic Mitt Romney is the fact that he is now considering a 2016 presidential run after having said for more than a year that he was not considering a 2016 presidential run.
“Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no,” he told the New York Times in January 2014. “I’m not running again.” In February, he said: “You know, I’m not Ronald Reagan. And I’m not running for president.”
In June, he told NBC News: “I’m not running for president.” And in October, he told Bloomberg television: “I’m not running, I’m not planning on running, and I’ve got nothing new on that story.” Ann Romney, not to be outdone by her husband, put it this way: “Done, completely. Not only Mitt and I are done, but the kids are done. Done. Done. Done.”
It’s possible, of course, that Romney just changed his mind. It’s possible that his interest in running again is a reflection of his new authenticity rather than a departure from it.
With his new openness to having cameras around all the time, he’ll have plenty of opportunity to explain why he was doing so many of the things one would do in preparation for a run even as he insisted that he wasn’t considering a bid. Romney made repeated appearances on the Sunday political talk shows, for instance, and reportedly made 80 congratulatory phone calls to winning campaigns on election night in 2014. All the while, Romney advisers whispered to top contributors and members of Congress that the 2012 nominee remained interested in a bid despite his public denials.