Mitt Romney's announcement this morning that he will not be actively running for the GOP nomination leaves a void in the firmament of potential candidates on both the Republican and Democratic side of the ledger. Romney was the only major potential candidate who had a substantial business background involving major management and leadership of complex and large entities -- something I think it's possible the public may be looking for in 2016.
Romney had been talking up a new focus on the poor and downtrodden over the last several weeks before his "not running" announcement. He made a speech on the retired aircraft carrier the USS Midway in the San Diego Harbor a couple of Fridays ago, during which he talked about needing to help the poor and reduce inequality, saying, "Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty than ever before. Under this president, his policies have not worked. Their liberal policies are good every four years for a campaign, but they don't get the job done."
This was a 180-degree flip from Romney's positioning in the 2012 election, during which he and his campaign operatives allowed the Obama campaign to position him as a champion of the rich and as out of touch with the common person. Obviously, in his preliminary thinking about a 2016 race, Romney must have decided that he needed to continue to move away from his business background (even though he said in recent days that he might be more open about his Mormon faith).
The idea that the American public is waiting desperately for populist candidates who will solve perceived issues surrounding inequality overnight and who will help the poor and middle class to do better seems to have taken hold across a number of political entities. Barack Obama himself announced a plan to place higher taxes on the rich and provide concomitant tax breaks for the middle class in his recent State of the Union address.
The issue generating all of this focus is the lack of a robust increase in incomes and the lack of an increase in well-paid jobs. Plus, there is the oft-mentioned inability of Americans to have a "fair shot" at rising above their beginnings and move into the middle- and upper-middle-class rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. The populist critics of a liberal bent argue that this situation stems from the fact that the rich (and Wall Street) arrange things so that everything works to their benefit and must therefore be battled at every front. Conservative critics argue that failed policies of the left are the cause.
There are other possible factors behind the nation's current economic situation, however. As Richard Cohen has presciently pointed out in his recent piece in The Washington Post, a lot of the blame is probably to be laid at the feet of technology, which has and probably will continue to allow for the eradication of what were formerly solid middle-class jobs.
And there's another possible cause -- the straightforward lack of high quality management and execution at all levels of government.
It's the latter point where Romney, in theory, could have fit in. It often makes sense -- in business and in politics -- to take advantage of one's pre-existing strengths and exploit and expand them, rather than deny or abandon the strengths and attempt to position oneself in a different direction. This was what Obama's 2012 strategy team saw clearly in that election year. They recognized that Romney's business experience could be a major campaign advantage, and therefore moved quickly and effectively to neutralize it before Romney could attempt to take advantage of it.
What if Romney had attempted to exploit his business background rather than allowing it to be turned against him? Romney has extensive management experience. He has a Harvard MBA (as, of course, did George W. Bush) and was a state governor (of course Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, Chris Christie and others also have this on their resumes). But Romney has something all of the above are missing -- extensive management experience and extensive experience in running complex entities. This includes his days as a management consultant at Bain and Company, his private equity days at Bain Capital and his 2002 Winter Olympics experience, which he managed to flip from a troubled enterprise into a major success. His private equity involvement was roundly criticized, but it did give him a great deal of exposure to and in-depth dealings with hardcore business situations in which successful outcomes are the major (and often only) criteria for success. That's something the government, it can be argued, is missing on many fronts, no doubt contributing to the American public's very negative views of the federal government's ability to operate efficiently. The idea is that a smoothly running, on target government enhances the entire economic climate of the country, either through its direct government actions which affect the economy, or by providing a more stable environment for businesses.
With Romney now out of the race, there isn't an obvious candidate who might be in a strong position to take on this execution/superior management/getting things done position in the campaign. As I noted previously, one positioning de jour is a populist one in which candidates from both parties will expatiate about how much they will be helping the middle and lower classes. Other candidates will focus mainly on traditional-type criticisms of the opposition. It may be that the public in 2016 is more interested in a candidate who will make the trains run on time, reform the way Congress and the federal government works, and in general focus the nation's government on efficiency and effectiveness. Who that candidate might be is now more up in the air.