Gone, But Not (Yet) Forgotten: Mitt Romney’s Bittersweet Return to CPAC

The failed presidential candidate breaks his post-election silence to thank a party that’s ready to move on

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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney at CPAC in National Harbor, Maryland March 15, 2013.

National Harbor, Maryland

The last time most of America saw Mitt Romney was on Election Night in Boston, when he shuffled offstage, stunned and stone-faced, at the victory party that had turned into his political wake. The next day he dropped out of sight. As the Republican Party tried to reconfigure itself in the wake of November’s pasting, Romney nursed his wounds at his California beach house. His lone post-election splash – an ungracious conference call in which he blamed his loss on the gifts Barack Obama bestowed on greedy minorities – did not stir sympathy. He said he was done with politics. And the party, for its part, seemed done with him.

So it was a little strange to see the former candidate, looking tanned and rested, stride into a cavernous ballroom here to the strains of Kid Rock’s Born Free, his old campaign anthem. The crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference here unleashed an earsplitting roar. “I am sorry that I will not be your president,” he told the crowd, “but I will be your co-worker, and I will stand shoulder to shoulder alongside you.”

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Romney’s first public speech since the election was classy but dissonant: part thank you to supporters, part rallying cry, part warmed-over stump speech. It was a re-entry into Republican politics at the precise moment the party is trying to move on. The theme of this year’s CPAC is “America’s Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives.” Romney is a reminder of conservative’s inglorious recent past.

Over the first two days of the conference, speakers came to this airy resort, nestled on the banks of the Potomac south of Washington, to lay out competing visions for how the party can set a new, winning direction — and jockey for position in the race to become its new standard-bearer. Few tears were shed for the old one. On Thursday, Texas Governor Rick Perry took a thinly veiled shot at Romney’s role in the November loss, suggesting the GOP dropped the past two election cycles because it failed to nominate a sufficiently conservative candidate.

CPAC – part trade show, part policy seminar, part political pulpit – is an annual reminder of the divergent factions that cohabitate under the Republican tent. Goldbugs rub elbows with neoconservatives. Survivalists hawk their wares; Tea Party groups screen dystopian fantasy movies; conservative think tanks distribute literature to earnest young acolytes of the Austrian economic school. CPAC is a place where activists collect USA foam fingers and tort-reform cozies and retro Reagan swag. Near an NRA booth where women in high heels lined up to play a skeet-shooting simulation game, a young man in a red knight’s sash passed out pamphlets lauding a lost culture of chivalry. After four months in seclusion, why had the former Massachusetts governor chosen to make his political return at this hard-core conservative confab, sandwiched between panels on the evils of abortion and the oppression of the plastics industry?

In a way, the carnival atmosphere of CPAC is as close to a home as Romney has had in the conservative movement. He has history here. Romney is a four-time winner of the gathering’s straw poll. In 2008, he quit his first presidential race onstage, an announcement that was met with boos from passionate supporters. One year ago, vying to stave off a Rick Santorum surge, he used the venue to assure the audience that he was “severely conservative” — a strained construction that reaffirmed skepticism instead.

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Romney came, a former aide said, to thank supporters for their contributions to his campaigns. But he also came to atone and apologize, and to pledge his assistance as he passed the torch. “It’s up to us to learn from our mistakes — from my mistakes,” Romney said. “As someone who just lost the last election, I’m probably not in the best position to chart a course for the next one.”

Most conservatives at CPAC seemed to agree. “I’m not sure what his place in the party is. He’s a failed presidential candidate. He doesn’t hold elected office,” says Edward King of Young Americans for Liberty. “I’m not sure he’s got any real support here.” King was standing next to a typology of political figures, with “statists” like Obama and Nancy Pelosi on the bottom, social conservatives like Santorum on the right and libertarians like Rand Paul at the top. Romney’s face was alone in the center. A year ago, when he used the world conservative during his CPAC speech a whopping 27 times in as many minutes, Romney would have been miffed at the classification. Now he has all but given up trying to convince conservatives he is one of them. His speech Friday barely invoked the word.

Like all CPAC speakers, Romney had some advice for the party. In remarks that seemed an implicit rebuke to the libertarian foreign policy championed by Rand Paul, stressed the importance of U.S. military supremacy in an increasingly dangerous world. But for the most part, he was there to pay tribute to a movement that is plainly ready to move on. “Thank you again for your help and support along our journey,” he said. “Ann and I will treasure these memories all the days of our lives.” The crowd gave him a standing ovation. Romney lingered onstage for a moment, basking in the applause. Then he disappeared behind the velvet curtains of the stage.

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