To open the New Year, newly minted senator Mitt Romney (R., Utah) unleashed a broadside against President Trump in the pages of the Washington Post. The piece hit a bevy of familiar notes: Trump’s lack of character, his vacillating policy preferences, his inability to unite Americans within a meaningful social fabric — and worse, his unwillingness to try. The bottom line, for Romney: Trump “has not risen to the mantle of the office.”
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?
The answer to the second question is pretty obviously no, barring impeachable activity on Trump’s part. Here’s how an actual primary campaign against Trump from Romney or anyone else would play out. The primarying candidate would declare him- or herself superior in character to Trump (which would probably be true), a better representative of conservatism than Trump (which could be true in theory but probably wouldn’t be true in policy terms), and a more likely 2020 victor (which would likely be false). On the first count, Republican voters would look the other way just as they did in 2016, having learned the lesson that character doesn’t matter — ironically enough, from 2012 Mitt Romney, whose sterling character plus five bucks bought him a cup of coffee in that election cycle.
On the second count, Republican voters would have to decide whether to throw out a sitting president responsible for, among other things, the seating of two Supreme Court justices and another 83 Article III judges; a massive tax cut; a systematic dismantlement of regulations, including the repeal of the individual mandate under Obamacare and the destruction of the Obama administration’s absurd Title IX standards; the formation of an anti-Iranian alliance among Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia; the movement of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; the rebuilding of the American military; criminal-justice reform (a policy libertarians certainly favor); and a booming economy (thus far). Trump has governed far more conservatively than expected.
On the final count, Republican voters would be asked to believe that Trump is unelectable. Of course, that’s the same argument some of us made in 2016, when he then proceeded to beat Hillary Clinton. It’s highly unlikely primary voters will find that contention convincing in light of 2016, no matter what the polls say. And they’d be particularly unlikely to think that someone like Romney — a two-time presidential loser (once in the primaries, once in the general) widely considered to have run a milquetoast campaign — would perform better than Trump.
A primary challenge would fail miserably — and not for terrible reasons. But herein lies the true danger of such a challenge, and of Romney’s foolish strategy: Such a challenge allows the political Left to portray any support for Trump’s policies or electability as an endorsement of his character. The media, who despise conservatism altogether, would immediately declare a primary challenge a contest between the Spirit of True Conservatism™ — a Conservatism for which they would surely discover a short-lived Strange New Respect™ — and the Trumpist Movement. That would be a dramatically debauched reading of the situation, but it would undoubtedly become a highly useful narrative for enemies of conservatism. It would relegate conservatism to the outer fringes with Trump’s inevitable primary victory.
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.