There was plenty of speculation about how Mitt Romney would be received at the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday. Of course conservatives would be respectful and polite. But how enthusiastic would they be about the man who led the Republican Party to defeat last November?
The answer: Very. When he walked onto the CPAC stage, Romney was met with loud and enthusiastic applause, with everyone standing. Just from personal observation, Romney’s response was bigger than the receptions that Rand Paul and Marco Rubio received the day before. If members of the CPAC crowd have any lingering resentments or animus toward Romney, they didn’t show it.
There was also speculation that Romney might somehow apologize for his losing campaign. Anybody who thought that had not noticed what Romney titled his last book: No Apology. There was no chance Romney would apologize for anything, nor even dwell on his mistakes. It’s not in his nature, and it was not the nature of the occasion, either.
The closest Romney came, and it wasn’t very close, was a passage toward the end of his speech. “I am sorry that I will not be your president,” he said, “but I will be your co-worker and I will stand shoulder to shoulder with you. In the end, we will win just as we have won before, and for the same reason: because our cause is right…and just.”
The other passage in which Romney looked backward, at least a little, was this: “We’ve lost races before, and in the past, those setbacks prepared us for larger victories. It is up to us to make sure that we learn from our mistakes, and my mistakes, so that we can win the victories those people and this nation depend upon.”
As far as introspection, or even hints of introspection, that was it. Beyond that, there were many passages in Romney’s speech that might have come straight from his campaign appearances. Indeed, he told some of the same stories. Remember Debbi Sommers, the Nevada woman who founded a furniture-making company? Romney talked about her a lot from the stump, and she was back in his speech at CPAC.
One thing Romney did not reprise from his 2012 appearance at CPAC was the sometimes feverishly-made case that he is a conservative. In that speech, just a year ago, Romney used the word “conservative” 24 times, including the infamous passage in which he declared himself “a severely conservative Republican governor.” In this year’s CPAC speech, Romney used the word just three times, and only once to describe himself, when he said, “Like you, I believe a conservative vision can attract a majority of Americans and form a governing coalition of renewal and reform.”
If Romney had a single point to make, it was to ask the crowd to look toward the nation’s Republican governors for leadership. “Yes, they are winning elections, but more importantly, they are solving problems,” Romney said. He particularly pointed to GOP governors in blue or purple states who are appealing to the voters Republicans need to win in the future. Among those he listed were Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, New Mexico’s Susanna Martinez, Nevada’s Brian Sandoval, and — yes — New Jersey’s Chris Christie. In the final days of the campaign, a number of members of Team Romney were miffed at Christie for his closeness to President Obama following Hurricane Sandy. Romney’s inclusion of Christie’s name was a signal that that was over.
What was the purpose of Romney’s appearance? It was mostly what Team Romney had said it would be: to thank conservatives for supporting him and to offer a few thoughts about the future. In the end, it was as simple as that.