Romney and Sarkozy: Familiar but Flawed

Author: Dana Ettinger, Johns Hopkins University

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Search “Mitt Romney comeback” and several results pop up. Op-eds from various news outlets proclaim his “perfect position” to run for the GOP’s presidential ticket in 2016. Political pundits have begun tossing his name around, a sharp contrast from the attention given to Chris Christie a few months ago. A website called “DraftMitt.org” calls on Romney supporters to sign a petition urging him to consider a run.

A search of “Nicolas Sarkozy return” yields similar results in google.fr. Sarkozy is currently running for head of the UMP, and being discussed as a potential candidate for the French presidential elections in 2017. “NicolasReviens.fr” (Return, Nicholas) wants to encourage Sarkozy’s return.

Both of these men have tumultuous political pasts. Mitt Romney’s two failed presidential runs, the second as the GOP’s candidate, were filled with the usual gaffes and blunders of presidential campaigns, and following his defeat in 2012, he quietly stepped back from the public spotlight. Nicolas Sarkozy has a history of controversy, including a nepotism scandal a few years ago. And yet both are trying to stage comebacks to the political scene – or at least, people seem to want them to.

Mitt Romney’s resurging popularity is likely a product of the dearth of qualified candidates for the 2016 presidential elections. The Republicans have been scrambling to find a suitable candidate since the last election cycle ended, but with little success. Potential candidates have come and gone, succumbing to scandals almost as soon as they appear. The political whack-a-mole is creating tension in an already fractured Republican Party, where the Tea Party is having a second wind of popularity and political strength. On the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton appears to be the one holding the giant mallet, despite her continued refusal to officially declare her intention to run. The challenge of finding someone to run against Clinton is indeed formidable – the Clinton campaign machine is legendary, and there are very few serious contenders within her own party. The air of inevitability the Democrats have been cultivating around a Clinton victory is potent, as evidenced by the “Ready for Hillary” signs that became popular more than two years before the election. All this combines to make the Republicans very nervous. Without a strong candidate of their own, they know they will lose the White House again. Enter Mitt Romney. He’s a known quantity. The margin of victory that cost him the presidency in 2012 was not unattainably large. Many of his policies remain popular among the Party base, and the current antipathy toward President Obama could easily be forged into a pointed weapon at the Democrats, given the proper treatment. If he learns from his mistakes from 2012, Romney could actually pose a threat to the Democratic behemoth.

Nicolas Sarkozy is facing a different challenge. His current bid for the head of the UMP (Union pour une Mouvement Populaire) has been regarded with as much skepticism as enthusiasm. He is not generally well-liked in French politics, even among those on the same side of the political spectrum. Furthermore, in July he became the first French president to be arrested, as part of an ongoing corruption investigation. Though he was popular when first elected in 2007, he made several reforms that resulted in widespread protests. Journalists compared him to Napoleon. The inverse of the GOP, the UMP has several candidates vying to be at its helm. With the current divisions, Sarkozy is likely hoping to take advantage of the confusion and make his comeback on the political stage. It is not a terrible strategy: Sarkozy is another known quantity, much like Romney.

The key difference between Mr. Romney and Mr. Sarkozy seems to be from where the desire for their respective comebacks spring. Romney seems content with his new life out of the political spotlight, as a recent documentary and Buzzfeed articles have pointed out. While polls in several states including Iowa and New Hampshire show he still has a fairly strong base of support, the man himself has been relatively quiet. His recent actions and comments could be construed as testing the waters: campaigning for Republican House and Senate candidates, attending fundraisers such as the “ComMITT to the Comeback Rally,” and making equivocal statements such as “we’ll see what happens” are a far cry from the firm denials of a third run in the months immediately following his 2012 defeat.

Sarkozy has no such network of support trying to draft him – though he was popular when he first came into power, by the time he left office his approval ratings were roughly half what they had been five years before. ReviensNicolas has 7651 supporters compared to DraftMitt’s 142,314. Furthermore, infighting in his own party will hurt his chances rather than help them, as in Romney’s case. Though he clearly has his eyes set on the 2017 presidential election, he is facing a difficult prospect that he may be unequipped to handle: appealing to the radical UMP base as well as a moderate French general electorate. It is a challenge many politicians have faced with far fewer handicaps. An infographic in L’Express shows his huge drop in support: a drop of 12 percentage points among the general population, and even more damning 24% decline among those who identify with the right.

The one similarity that arises between these two figures is that they both emerged from intra-party conflict. Both the American Republican Party and the French UMP have been beset by internal strife and conflict. The Tea Party’s resurgence has renewed the GOP’s civil war, and the fractures within the UMP have made the race for the party president into a bloody battle. Both of these parties lean toward the conservative side of the political spectrum, and the instability of factional infighting is particularly damaging to them. Perhaps Romney and Sarkozy are seen as bringing a measure of stability back into internal party politics: while they have their flaws, party leaders facing external threats likely prefer the devils they know to the devils they don’t.

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