When the news broke this weekend that Willard Mitt Romney looks to be seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency one more time, the conservative reaction in much of the media was a mix of laughter and grim disbelief.
As expected (and necessarily, given 2012’s results) the Romney camp has been persistently messaging that “this time will be different.” Or in language Mitt might be comfortable with, “past performance does not necessarily predict future results.” So let’s, for the sake of argument, think through how 2016’s Mitt Romney could actually be different.
First, we have to look at where Mitt is. A 67-year-old long-term unemployed former Staples director, Romney has spent the past two years with grandchildren and his extended family, heartily denying any interest in renewing his former job search. After so recently failing in a campaign mostly distinguishable for its lack of authenticity, one would think that the only way for Mitt to be emotionally up for another run is to cut himself loose to simply be the man he was always reported to be: a loving, decent, warmly awkward family man fiercely committed to his church and community. That is the “Mitt”  that the Romney 2012 advisers bizarrely didn’t want voters to see.
According to Politico‘s survey  of former Romney advisers, Mitt sees a new campaign being built around three pillars: poverty, middle-class mobility, and a muscular foreign policy. Politico notes that poverty has become a passion of Mitt’s former running mate Paul Ryan following inner-city tours conducted by civil rights leader Bob Woodson.
The question is how a man described by one of his supporters as “the worst communicator in the world [with] no message,” who in the immortal words  of @DragonFlyJonez  “reminds me of every boss I ever hated,” and who reportedly chalked up his 2012 rejection to “gifts” showered by President Obama to young and poor voters, could possibly come up with a credible message to sell about his poverty-fighting sincerity.
Fortunately, yesterday morning at the Heritage Foundation, Romney’s co-religionist Sen. Mike Lee gave a speech  laying out just such a message:
But as I see it there is one issue – one challenge facing the American people today – that rises above the rest in its complexity, its magnitude, and the reach of its consequences. Directly or indirectly it affects nearly every other public issue you can think of, and should therefore be placed squarely at the center of our reform agenda.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, that issue is the family – its increasing importance and its declining stability – and I believe it may be the single defining challenge of our time.
What makes Lee’s message particularly promising—and important—is that he acknowledges the economic as well as the cultural pressures that have dramatically reshaped the state of the American family. Conservatives all too often treat the family as an institution that exists outside of economics, a natural byproduct of rightly ordered souls. The decline of stable, intact families and the rise of premarital childbearing are seen solely as signs of moral decline and social dissolution, rather than also being results of escalating economic pressures on Americans at each stage of life. That habit has been particularly convenient for the GOP’s power brokers as it has meant that social conservatism has not threatened corporate conservatism’s monopoly on fiscal policy priorities.
Many of the men retreating from marriage today are not doing so confidently. They’re not defiantly rejecting tradition and embracing postmodern values. No. For many, their retreat from marriage is a constrained, insecure choice, driven by a lack of social and economic opportunity. So our pro-family, anti-poverty agenda must account for both sides of the coin.
Lee’s “pro-family, anti-poverty” agenda goes beyond his child tax credit proposals to include criminal justice reform to reunite vulnerable young men with their fathers, and he points to “transportation, labor, and housing systems that make it harder for parents to find decent jobs, get by without two full-time incomes, or make it home in time for dinner with the kids.”
A social conservatism more focused on strengthening families than fanning culture war flames, motivated by a modest economic populism, and demonstrating an understanding of the full range of pressures working- and middle-class Americans are under, could be truly formidable. Lee’s rugged communitarianism  derives in part from his understanding of the Mormon settlement of Utah, and the tremendous civil society networks that have grown out of his church. Mitt Romney would seem as likely of a candidate as any to be able to grasp the roots of such an appeal to family and community.
In the end, is Mitt Romney the man to carry that banner all the way to the White House? Almost certainly not. Too much of 2012 Mitt was the real thing as a candidate, a corporate consultant who lost four-to-one among voters whose top priority was a candidate who “cares about people like me.” And if Politico is to be trusted, Romney’s circle is already teeming with more excuses for his 2012 failure than sound acceptances of their shortcomings. What’s more, the 2016 field will be much stronger, with faces much fresher in a country desperate for a change.
However, if Romney splits enough support from Jeb to weaken them both, he could conceivably still play kingmaker, and grant the full family-friendly reform platform to another candidate (John Kasich? Marco Rubio?) along with his financial network.
There would be something altogether fitting about the successful reform of the Republican party in 2016 coming about through the political redemption of Mitt Romney.