Mitt Romney, Presidential Referee

Now he can judge field goals.

Photographer: Sandy Huffaker

Unlike Calvin Coolidge, another former Massachusetts governor whose announcement of his presidential non-candidacy was memorably succinct, Mitt Romney's announcement today was notable for its indirectness. "I’ve decided it is best to give other leaders in the party the opportunity to become our next nominee," he said.

Romney won't be retreating completely from the spotlight, however. As a former nominee and almost-candidate, as well as a reliable fundraiser, Romney is well-positioned to be an occasional (regular, even?) referee in the Republican primaries. A well-timed remark from him could alter the context of a particular debate, or undermine the authority of some Republican orthodoxies -- on climate, inequality and other issues -- that need to be challenged from within.

Fortunately, the evolving Republican field appears much stronger than the one in 2012. The question is whether the party is confident enough to foster and reward genuine debate. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is a proving to be a provocative outlier on privacy and foreign affairs. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has shown a promising interest in new ideas for buttressing middle-class families. And, for now, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush appears to be planning a high-risk, high-reward campaign that forcefully challenges the party's prevailing tone of anger when it comes to immigration policy.

Depending on how he uses his credibility and characterizes the intraparty debate, Romney can give moderation a bit more breathing room -- or he can reinforce the cries for party orthodoxy. He may have left the playing field, but he can still use his influence to encourage a better, smarter, more expansive game. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.