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White House

Mitt Romney’s Naïve Incoherence

Businessman Donald Trump endorses former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for president in Las Vegas, Nev., February 2, 2012. (Rick Wilking/REUTERS)

Mitt Romney is a fine and decent person, whom I voted for without regret, then or now, and who strangely just published a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post about President Trump days before assuming office as Utah’s newly elected junior senator. But why in the world would he reserve his invective for January, rather than in October, when it surely would have had greater force?

As far as Romney’s calls for Trump to be less ad hominem in his retaliatory remarks, he may be right, both in terms of presidential behavior and political wisdom (given that Trump needs to capture 5–8 percent additional support from suburbanites and minorities). And he is correct to draw attention to reckless federal spending and this apparent bipartisan custom of borrowing a near trillion dollars a year. Let us hope that Romney’s proven financial sobriety will help galvanize the congress to prune reckless deficits.

But that said, I fear that much of Romney’s invective is utterly incoherent. The departures of many top cabinet officials in some cases were regrettable, in some understandable, but most were likely because Trump ran on an agenda neither traditionally Republican nor Democratic. Trump was the first president without either political or military experience. So there always was also going to be difficulty (and paradoxes) in matching his outsider policies with experienced insider administrators. We should, however, remember that the tenures of Department of Defense secretaries (four in the respective Obama and Truman administrations) and White House chiefs of staff (four respectively for Reagan and Clinton, five for Obama) are historically not always particularly long.

Romney is, euphemistically, accurate in stating that he opposed Trump (“Donald Trump was not my choice for the Republican presidential nomination”). And he explains, admirably so, that he hoped that “his [Trump’s] campaign would refrain from resentment and name-calling. It did not.” And Romney was further disappointed that “on balance, his [Trump’s] conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions this last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.”

But, ironically, all such long-standing repulsion at Trump’s behavior (even if it did crest in December as Romney alleges) raises the question, again, Why would Romney have accepted Trump’s endorsement for his senate run in 2018, especially given the fact that he probably did not need it to be elected in Utah?

And given that Trump was a known quantity (and known often to be abrasive) for decades, why would Romney have sought out and accepted his endorsement in 2012 for his own presidential run? The obvious answers are that in a world of political pragmatism, all candidates are foolish to turn down endorsements from celebrities and sitting presidents. But is not the bar higher for ethicists who argue that traditional definitions of character adjudicate successful or unsuccessful governance?

After listing Trump’s successful policies (“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”), Romney mysteriously concludes that “these are policies mainstream Republicans have promoted for years.”

I think about at least 40 percent of the electorate might beg to differ.

Certainly, the prior appointments of Supreme Court Justices Blackmun, Brennan, Powell, Souter, and Stevens, to name a few, would not suggest much Republican consistency in appointing conservative Supreme Court justices. China’s unfair trade policies were never reined in, but often enhanced by laissez-faire Republican administrations hand-in-glove with corporate globalism. I am not aware that the regulatory state significantly decreased over the last 40 years, despite Republican governance.

Romney is certainly right that presidents “should unite us and inspire us to follow our ‘better angels.’” And Trump has been often a catalyst rather than a restraint on national mudslinging. But we also forget that, for the first time in modern memory, during the 2016 election, one candidate hired a law firm and opposition research team to employ a foreign-national operative, who in turn bought foreign sources to discredit his employer’s opponent and with others also enlisted the existing hierarchies of the DOJ, CIA, FBI, NSC, and FISA courts to break past protocol, and often the law, in order to obstruct the candidacy, transition, and presidency of  Donald Trump.

There was a constitutional way of checking Trump through the 2018 midterm and in the 2020 presidential elections without a “resistance” trying immediately to undermine from within his administration, to warp the Electoral College, to sue to overturn voting totals in key states, to introduce articles of impeachment, to turn to the emoluments clause, the Logan Act, and the 25th Amendment, to unleash a special counsel (of 19 months tenure and counting) to look for “collusion” as a way of examining some 20 years of prior Trump behavior, to energize a media that on average offered 90 percent negative coverage of the presidency, while a Republican “deep state” operative vowed (bragging in a NY Times editorial no less) to obstruct and retard the work of the elected president.

I cannot recall mainstream celebrities such as Madonna, Johnny Depp, Robert de Niro, and others promising to do violence to the President of the United States, an assassination chic that has so permeated our society that even Shakespearean companies took up the theme of ritually killing the president. Even if Romney believes that Trump is a veritable Captain Queeg, he surely also realizes that Herman Wouk’s point was that the Caine mutiny was an avoidable conspiracy, one prompted by ego, careerism, and reasons other than concern for naval efficacy.

Romney is right to be concerned that “the world is also watching.” And he may be likely further correct that “Trump’s words and actions have caused dismay around the world.” But that assessment also assumes that the world is stable, rationale, or at least more so than is the U.S.

But is it?

“Several allies in Europe are experiencing political upheaval,” Romeny sugges ts. “Several former Soviet satellite states are rethinking their commitment to democracy. Some Asian nations, such as the Philippines, lean increasingly toward China, which advances to rival our economy and our military. The alternative to U.S. world leadership offered by China and Russia is autocratic, corrupt and brutal.”

Well, yes, of course. But Romney apparently seems to assume these developments began in 2017. In fact, they are of decades-long duration, whether defined by the new Chinese bases on the Spratley Islands, the acquisition of long-range nuclear missiles by North Korea, the so-called Iran deal that institutionalized Iranian aggression and eventual proliferation, or a failed reset that led to Russian aggrandizement, dismantlement of shared U.S. missile defense plans in eastern Europe, and Russian entrance into the Middle East. Surely bipartisan analysts would agree that current U.S. policy toward China is far tougher than in the past, that for all of the rhetoric of collusion, American sanctions on Russians, the arming of the Ukrainians, oil policies, and defense spending reflect more, not less, anti-Putin efforts than in the past.

Faux red lines, deadlines and step-over lines that questioned U.S. resolve at a time of massive defense cuts were pre-Trump phenomena.

We all support a “united” Europe, but the adjective is not necessarily synonymous with the present European Union that is increasing anti-democratic and empowered by German imperious bullying that cynically has seen the union as a platform for a cheaper currency and its own mercantilism. The reasons that Eastern Europe is at odds with Germany and France are open border fiats, not Trump. The reason that southern Europe is at odds with northern EU is money and borrowing, not Trump. Brexit was a United Kingdom reaction to European overreach, not caused by Trump. It was Barack Obama who coined the term “free riders” for NATO allies whose economies were not in recession and yet expected defense subsidies from the U.S. And he was not incorrect in his rude and somewhat bitter assessments.

Romney is, again, worried that “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.” But, again, his critique is curiously one-sided. The Trump administration has been championing the rights of persecuted Christian minorities abroad in a way not seen in the past. It has been outspoken at home and abroad in defense of religious liberty.

The Mueller investigation has not yet found violations of the rule of law by President Trump, who will go down in history as the most audited and investigated president in history, although other prosecutors may well find serial lawbreaking on the part of federal-government hierarchies in association with the promulgation of the false Steele dossier, the use of informants, surveilling, unmasking, and illegal leaking.

“Fake news” also predated Donald Trump. And it is now a weekly occurrence (the most recent, that Michale Cohen really was in Prague colluding with the Russians). Were press coverage 70 percent anti-Trump, the American people might be not so fed up with the news. But when it is 90 percent negative, and when media so often announce that the rules of disinterested coverage should be suspended in the unique case of Trump, then, again, the maladies endangering the press are often self-inflicted.

I, too, share Romney’s worries over “responsible corporations,” given that we now are at the mercy of an Internet monopoly of Silicon Valley trusts that seek to censure, warp, surveille, and disrupt on the basis of corporate profit-making and rank politicking. I do not recall any past Republican or Democratic leader exposing much worry over this existential Orwellian threat.

Finally, Romney must realize that the American people knew that Romney himself was an experienced, decent, and sober candidate, while Donald Trump could be reckless in speech and was without political expertise. And yet they elected Trump who had far less chance of victory in 2016 than Romney had in 2012. That oddity alone might be a cause for more self-reflection that precludes the usual boilerplate implications and inferences that the American people were somehow fooled, misled, or tricked by the Russians into electing a known-quantity Trump.

The most likely reasons for Trump’s primary and general-election victories were that traditional Republicanism did not seem to care about a hollowed-out red-state interior or the traditional working classes, and that the party itself had become, even if unfairly, emblematized by wealthy financiers and Wall Street. It was perceived, again rightly or wrongly, as believing that losing nobly in presidential elections (losing four of the last six presidential elections and not gaining a 51 percent vote plurality in 30 years) was preferable to winning in the manner of the Democrats.

“Character” should not be a debatable proposition in presidential governance, but it is — and always has been. (And it can be defined also by embracing policies that lead to millions of the once dispossessed enjoying an economy and jobs not seen in years.)

President Roosevelt — a more successful and far less ethical president than Herbert Hoover — did things that would have led an earlier Robert Mueller to call for his indictment (from Japanese-American and -resident incarceration, to attempting to stack the Supreme Court, to using president powers to hound personal and political enemies), in a way Jimmy Carter would never have dreamed.

I wish sober and judicious temperament was synonymous with successful governance, but, alas, so often it is not — a confession that is not an endorsement for crassness. Had Romney in 2012 sincerely used the first-personal possessive pronoun “our” to reference millions of displaced workers in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania rather than writing off 47 percent of the country as hopelessly lost to Republicans as inveterate takers, or had he just expressed something akin to  Ronald Reagan’s 1988 New Hampshire primary-debate outrage (“I am paying for this microphone!”) when CNN moderator Candy Crawley quite unethically hijacked the second debate and unprofessionally became a contextualizer for candidate Barack Obama, he might well have been president.


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