Mitt's Multiple Personalities

In 2008, Romney was the True Conservative. In 2012, he was the Economic Turnaround Whiz. He wants to run in 2016 as the Poverty Fighter.

From left: Mike Segar; Dominick Reuter; Jim Young/Reuters

The 2012 election seems so long ago, doesn't it? Michele Bachmann's autism theories, weekly Biden gaffes, Nine-nine-nine ... it's all so hazy. You probably can't even remember what it was that Mitt Romney wanted to do if he became president.

Romney must hope so. Not only is he apparently serious about running for president again—he "almost certainly will," he reportedly told a senior Republican—but the man famous for dismissing 47 percent of Americans as "dependent on government" plans to do so with fighting poverty as the central theme of his campaign. If so, Romney will run three presidential campaigns on three radically different themes. Call it the audacity of Mitt.

There are good reasons to think that strategy won't work, but it's not as irrational as it initially seems. Fighting poverty is a tough message for a Republican candidate, Romney is a flawed messenger for it, and he'd have to overcome the skepticism of GOP elites. Having bought into the idea that Romney was an effective manager if not a charismatic leader, they feel burnt by his stumbling 2012 campaign. Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, for example, noted a list of ways Romney hurt himself at a recent donor lunch.

Improbable though this latest intervention may seem, Mitt Romney's effort to recast himself as a poverty fighter is actually wholly consistent with the arc of his political career.

In the 2008 GOP primary, Romney came up second to John McCain. McCain represented a heterodox strain of Republican thought, and many in the party were wary of his "maverick" streak. So Romney ran to McCain's right, positioning himself as The Real Conservative Candidate in the GOP primary. It didn't quite work—he stumbled early, and McCain had the advantage of having "waited his turn"—but it was good for second.

Four years later, with the Tea Party a new force in the conservative movement, Romney couldn't claim he was the right's champion (despite his unintentionally comic insistence that he was "severely conservative"). Wisely, he cast himself as The Job-Creating, Economic Turnaround Whiz rather than trying to out-conservative his rivals. Not a bad strategy, but not a winning one, either. Most importantly, the economy improved steadily over the course of the campaign, buoying Obama to reelection—the jobs were already created, it turned out. Romney's strategy also produced some memorable attack ads. Democrats deployed workers who'd been laid off from factory jobs by Bain Capital, Romney's private-equity firm. He was caught on tape saying that 47 percent of Americans were dependent on government and would never vote for him.

Incredibly, Romney now wants to run in 2016 as The Compassionate Conservative Champion of the Poor. There's a logic here. Since the economy has been steadily improving for years now, there's no need for a Mr. Fix-It, and in a field with candidates like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, Mitt Romney will never be the conservative choice. The premises of both of Romney's previous runs have been completely demolished, so he's creating a new one out of whole cloth. According to John Dickerson, he has acknowledged that the weak economy is no longer a good basis for a campaign, but he somehow is spinning it as a boon.

There's also perhaps something to be said for attacking your weaknesses head-on: If you've been criticized as a plutocrat who doesn't care for the less fortunate, you might as well run saying you want to tackle poverty. If you've been pilloried as a moderate flip-flopper, you might as well go all out and adopt a third, different rationale for your third campaign for president, and it might as well be squishily centrist. Democrats claim to be the party that fights inequality, but they've done little to stop its growth, and presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton would be ill-suited to running a campaign about income disparities.

One downside is that swapping out the old persona for a new one cuts against his other rationale for running, which is "I told you so"—he argues that President Obama's struggles since the 2012 election vindicate his campaign. A second is that Romney, given the 47 percent comments and his background in private equity, might be the Republican least able to turn the inequality fight around on Democrats. And the third is that such a strategy assumes voters are painfully cautious or too dumb to notice a rapidly shifting political identity. It's as if William Jennings Bryan, having failed in 1896 and 1900, had decided to run as the candidate of the gold standard and big banks in 1904.

And yet Romney seems to be serious. Sure, it's early. Maybe he'll decide the money isn't there for his run. Maybe he'll decide he doesn't really want to put himself through another race. Maybe he'll decide that with Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker in the race, there isn't space for him. But maybe he won't. He leads in at least one poll of Iowa GOP voters. He leads the Republican primary field in HuffPost Pollster's average. He would apparently be able to bring back most of his staff from 2012—though whether that's an asset is an open question.

If Romney does run, and if he does so while railing against inequality, it's hard to imagine him winning. But it will impossible for anyone to accuse him of excessive caution.