Romney’s non-entry and the shape of the race

Mitt Romney delivered two gifts to the Republican Party on Friday. The first was his decision not to run for president. Unlike many, I believe Romney would have been an okay nominee. However, the GOP may well need better than “okay,” and there are some in the potential field who seem better equipped to take advantage of what I perceive to be Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses.

This leads to Romney’s second gift — his endorsement, in effect, of the kind of candidate who is likely to be most troublesome for Clinton. As Romney put it:

I believe that one of our next generation of Republican leaders — one who may not be as well-known as I am today, one who has not yet taken their message across the country, one who is just getting started — may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democrat nominee. In fact, I expect and hope that to be the case.

There may be a tension, though, between Romney’s two gifts. By not running, he seems to improve the prospects of Jeb Bush, who is not a “next generation” leader “just getting started.”

This, at least, is the conventional wisdom.

I’m not so sure it’s correct. By bowing out, Romney may provide oxygen for “next generation” candidates, such as Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Bobby Jindal. (Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, also in that category, supply their own oxygen).

It’s true, of course, that Romney’s non-entry frees up donors and consultants, a disproportionate number of whom may opt for Bush. Moreover, it means that Bush won’t lose center-right votes to Romney.

But if there are enough center-right Republican primary/caucus participants to nominate Bush, there probably are enough of them to have nominated Bush or Romney, whichever one did better in the early going. Moreover, it’s not at all clear that Bush will have the center-right, or “establishment,” niche to himself. Chris Christie, for example, now may end up co-occupying it.

Thus, the main effect of Romney’s non-entry may be to move the race more quickly to where it probably would have been after the early going — a field dominated by an “establishment” candidate (now probably Bush), a Tea Party favorite or two (probably Cruz and/or Paul), a “bridge candidate or two (say Walker and/or Rubio), and maybe Mike Huckabee if he retains his popularity among evangelicals.

Moving to that stage sooner rather than later, without the distraction of a “clash of the establishment titans,” probably helps the “non-establishment” candidates. The sooner they obtain credibility and move to the foreground, the better for them — and the better for the Party, I think.