The malleability of Mitt Romney's political persona was widely—and correctly, I think—viewed as a weakness of his campaign. He was too willing to say anything he thought his party wanted to hear, too unwilling to stake out firm and clear positions of his own. He was a follower, not a leader, a reflection of his party's incoherence rather than a visionary who could unify its disparate parts, and he let a cautious consultant's mindset—give the client what they want—drive his messaging. In the end, he left his party much the way he found it: leaderless, uncertain, and united mostly by opposition to common political enemies.
But that very malleability, and Romney's clear willingness to reshape himself and his campaign into various guises also makes it possible to imagine a very different Romney and a very different GOP presidential run—one that might still have lost, yes, but would have left the party better off in doing so.
Romney, the ideology-averse Massachusetts moderate who helped pass ObamaCare's state-level predecessor, was always an awkward fit for the Tea Party-infused Republican party of 2012. And yet at the same time he was actually well-positioned to help shape the party's thinking on any number of crucial issues.
RomneyCare, for example, didn't have to be the awkward liability that it was. Romney could have used his experience building that program to position himself as the most knowledgeable Republican critic of ObamaCare, someone who has seen that system firsthand and knows now that it does not work as well as promised. He could have argued that RomneyCare was a worthwhile experiment, but not one that should be repeated.
On immigration, Romney ran as a staunch hawk who favored "self-deportation." But his position wasn't always so cringe-worthy. Just a few years earlier, Romney's immigration views were closer to the party's moderate, business-friendly wing: In 2007, he said on Meet the Press that he favored policies that would make it possible for illegal immigrants already in the U.S. to achieve citizenship or permanent residency. Rather than reverse himself, Romney could have expanded on his openness to immigrants, emphasizing their entrepreneurial drive and willingness to work. Yes, there would have been resistance from parts of the base. But it might have helped the GOP with Latino voters, who voted overwhelmingly for President Obama. An argument for a more immigration-friendly position, meanwhile, would have put him ahead of the curve with his party, which in the days since the election has taken a sharp turn in favor of immigration reform.
On taxes, Romney toed the Republican line by proposing large reductions in income tax rates. To ensure revenue neutrality, he said, he'd cut loopholes from the tax code, but never specified which ones. This was exactly backwards: Romney, a detail oriented technocrat with a deserved reputation as a minutiae-obsessed numbers guy, should have focused on tax simplification—pushing a detailed tax reform plan to the wonks of the world while emphasizing the ease, simplicity, and fairness of an overhauled tax code, perhaps while suggesting the possibility of new tax rate cuts down the road.
This is the sort of technocratic reform planning that should have played to the strength his consulting background. He even had a record to back it up: As Governor of Massachusetts, he cut numerous tax loopholes and deductions. Instead, he came off looking like an almost cartoonishly generic Republican.
He fed that perception with his insistence on setting a floor for defense spending that would have resulted in a huge spike in the military budget. Again, his background as details-driven management consultant could have helped him: Romney could have made an argument for efficiency, for streamlining the defense budget and paring back waste on outside contractors and useless projects. Yes, Republicans are likely to remain more hawkish than their Democratic counterparts, but it's possible they could have been swayed by an argument that Obama had mismanaged the military, allowing it to become another bloated bureaucracy rather than an efficient fighting force.
I'm biased, of course, by the fact that I favor of all of these positions myself. Lest anyone make the mistake of thinking that I believe these changes would have necessarily carried Romney to victory—well, I don't. President Obama always had the edge, in demographic shifts, in the electoral college, in his incumbency, and even in the economic fundamentals, which, despite their real ongoing problems, have slowly improved. Indeed, that's part of the reason why Romney was so well suited to run this imaginary campaign: The time to take the biggest risks is when victory is already a long-shot.
And even if Romney had lost on this campaign, or something more like it, he would have left the Republican better off than when he started: more prepared for the demographic realities of the future, and more willing and able to offer both specific policies and a clearer vision of what government is and should be in the years to come.
All of which is to say that he could have done what the best and most effective consultants actually do: Arrived as an outsider to take stock of what's working and what's not, to deliver harsh news where it's needed and make difficult decisions where leadership was previously unable or unwilling—but also to present a vision of success through reform. He could have been a voice, not an echo.