The more I read the op-ed written by Mitt Romney in yesterday’s Washington Post, the more unclear to me exactly what the objective was. Was Romney signalling that he intended to fulfill the role of Jeff Flake and John McCain in the last Congress by constantly kvetching from the sidelines about something Trump has done or said? Or has he decided that he’s going to primary Trump in 2020? I leave out the possibility that he thinks he will have a lot of impact in the Senate because a) regardless of resume he’s too junior and b) a person who is interested in being a player doesn’t start out by lambasting the president of his own party.
It is not that all of the president’s policies have been misguided. He was right to align U.S. corporate taxes with those of global competitors, to strip out excessive regulations, to crack down on China’s unfair trade practices, to reform criminal justice and to appoint conservative judges. These are policies mainstream Republicans have promoted for years. But policies and appointments are only a part of a presidency.
To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.
While I don’t intend to fisk the whole op-ed I want to call out a few sections that I think merit a hard look and I have to confess to be as unclear on the purpose of the op-ed now as when I first read it.
First, I’d contend that if any of the items in first paragraph had really been concerns of “mainstream Republicans” then we’d have heard more about them. Criminal justice reform was a non-starter in Republican circles until Trump decided to champion it. I don’t want to argue the merits (for my view it still puts too many people in prison for too long for too many bullsh** process crimes, YMMV) but the fact is that this is NOT a traditional GOP talking point. Conservative judges have not been a traditional GOP objective, and no one can convince me that a president who tried to put Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court really cared about conservative judges. There has been a lot of bitching about China’s trade practices but, in the end, the Chamber of Commerce Republicans would rather have cheap Chinese goods and cheap illegal labor than care about American workers. The GOP has always talked smack about reducing federal regulations but, in fact, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between the enthusiasm of the GOP and the Democrats to expand the administrative state…until now:
I have no issue with Romney’s Platonic ideal of a president, but I don’t think that man shows up very often. Do we really think that Obama was a whole lot different from Trump in honesty, integrity, comity, mutual respect, etc.? I agree that Obama had better table manners and could pull off appearing to respect other parties better than Trump, but you don’t have to look far or listen much to see that Obama held much of non-elite America in utter contempt and would lie shamelessly if provoked. It is hard to imagine an act more divisive than sending official White House representatives to the funeral of slain thug Michael Brown after it was known the whole “hands up, don’t shoot” meme was utterly false. What of the Mexican civilians and Border Patrol agent Brian Terry who were massacred via Fast and Furious? And Benghazi. And Syria. And ISIS. And billions of dollars in cash to Iran. And “if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor.” If you’re to credit the received wisdom of the elites, President Bush lied the US into a 15-year military expedition in Iraq. Surely, all of these must be weighed in correct proportions with anything Trump has said or done.
To reassume our leadership in world politics, we must repair failings in our politics at home. That project begins, of course, with the highest office once again acting to inspire and unite us. It includes political parties promoting policies that strengthen us rather than promote tribalism by exploiting fear and resentment. Our leaders must defend our vital institutions despite their inevitable failings: a free press, the rule of law, strong churches, and responsible corporations and unions.
We must repair our fiscal foundation, setting a course to a balanced budget. We must attract the best talent to America’s service and the best innovators to America’s economy.
America is strongest when our arms are linked with other nations. We want a unified and strong Europe, not a disintegrating union. We want stable relationships with the nations of Asia that strengthen our mutual security and prosperity.
This is just pap. The one thing I like most about Trump’s personality…other than his willingness to bring fire and sword to the left…is that even though he isn’t conservative and he’s not any identifiable form of orthodox Christian he does adhere to the idea of “you dance with them what brung ya.” We have achieved more in the fight against abortion, more in reduction of regulations, more in reducing the intrusiveness of the federal government, more in protecting religious freedom, more in reshaping the federal bench in two years under Trump than we did in eight years under George Bush. The president is there to lead and to govern. He’s not there to be Oprah Winfrey or Doctor Phil. If people want to fall in line and follow where he’s leading, that is how he unites us. If they don’t, well they shouldn’t have a huge voice in making decisions. What Romney doesn’t understand–and Trump does–is that most of the people who voted against him cannot be placated. Some, like Bill Kristol and his cabana boys, can’t even be brought to support Trump when he does things they’ve been agitating in favor of for years. What makes this so disingenuous is that Romney, himself, disavowed some of his own op-ed just this past summer when he was the Trump-endorsed GOP candidate to replace Orrin Hatch in the Senate:
On the edge of a mountaintop in Utah, it’s getting complicated for Mitt Romney.
With the sun setting over his shoulder, the former Republican presidential nominee and would-be senator tells his audience, gathered on the patio of a resort, that President Donald Trump will win a second term. Romney also says that annual $1 trillion deficits under Trump are “highly stimulative.” And ignoring Trump’s new trade tariffs, Romney says there’s nothing already on the horizon that will push the U.S. into a recession.
And then we get down to the bottom line:
Furthermore, I will act as I would with any president, in or out of my party: I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state, and oppose those that are not. I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault. But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.
Romney has been around long enough to know that all Republicans are those things to Democrats and trying to convince them you’re not is a chump’s game. You’d think the guy who was castigated for “binders full of women” would have a clue.
Dear "principled" Republican senators: It's all meaningless talk until you vote with Democrats.
— Peter Daou (@peterdaou) January 2, 2019
Any genuinely principled Republican should be asking why such a person retains overwhelming support from the base. Romney in particular should ask why 75 percent of those who voted for him in 2012 approve of Trump now, 44% strongly 2/ https://t.co/SAyYUTYcZ4
— Paul Krugman (@paulkrugman) January 2, 2019
The point is that the essence of Trumpism was central to the GOP long before Trump. Someone like Max Boot gets it. Romney is far from a stupid man. If he doesn't get it, it's because he doesn't want to 4/ https://t.co/f4IsQkCuuY pic.twitter.com/7IbneAIhSs
— Paul Krugman (@paulkrugman) January 2, 2019
What makes the op-ed so shocking is that Romney seems to say over and over that Trump is a truly bad and unworthy man which makes you wonder how anyone who believes–and who has a whit of character–this would have campaigned to be Secretary of State or accepted Trump’s endorsement in the Utah Senate race. And how could they support him in 2020?
Ben Shapiro looks at the entire thing and arrives at the same conclusion that I do:
The essay, in truth, reads like the opener of a presidential campaign. It’s a stock speech replete with broad recommendations on policy (more strength in foreign policy, a call to “repair our fiscal foundation”) and ersatz optimism (“I remain optimistic about our future . . . noble instincts live in the hearts of Americans”). Romney states that Americans “will eschew the politics of anger and fear if they are summoned to the responsibility by leaders in homes, in churches, in schools, in businesses, in government.” Presumably, Romney considers himself such a possible leader.
If not, the entire op-ed raises the question: What do you want us to do about it, senator? By declaring Trump unfit for his office, Romney immediately forces a choice: Should he back Trump in 2020, or challenge him? Should Republicans be pushed to choose between an incumbent president and a person of more character and consistent conservative conviction — and would a primary effort actually effectuate that choice?
So, what’s Romney doing with his op-ed? Nothing useful. In fact, he’s doing something seriously counterproductive. If Senator Romney wants to sound off against Trump’s excesses and character flaws, he should by all means do so in response to Trump’s tweets or statements or actions. But by forcing a “Love Trump or Leave Trump” choice on Republicans, he’s actually doing the work of both the most ardent Trumpists and the most viciously antagonistic members of the Democratic party and the media.
All in all, it leaves you much like a James Bond martini…shaken, not stirred. A less charitable take…with which I have substantial agreement…is at this thread:
Why is anyone surprised by Romney backstabbing Trump in an op-ed? Romney was always vicious as hell toward other Republicans. It's only when he fights Democrats that he puts on his kid gloves and laces them together behind his back.
— John Hayward (@Doc_0) January 2, 2019
Brit Hume hits the true impact of this op-ed on Romney’s reputation once the momentary buzz of this has passed:
Because nothing is more appealing to Republican voters than a guy who is happy to have Trump’s support in the campaign, then turns on Trump after the election and writes a nasty piece about him for the Washington Post. https://t.co/pFt8rv29m3
— Brit Hume (@brithume) January 2, 2019
This is from Romney’s niece:
POTUS is attacked and obstructed by the MSM media and Democrats 24/7. For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack @realdonaldtrump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and is disappointing and unproductive. https://t.co/ArhI7Bi7bo
— Ronna McDaniel (@GOPChairwoman) January 2, 2019
It would be nice to expect that Romney would be as diffident to Trump as he was to Obama, but I doubt that Romney can resist the call to be the “adult in the room” or the “elder statesman” who is constantly called upon to school the lout in the White House. That is not going to serve Romney or the GOP well.
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