The Corner

Mitt Speech Was Worse Than Nothing

Rich, I hope you’re right. I hear what Ross is saying about how Mitt Romney’s effort today was “better than nothing” in light of how imperfect a messenger he is. But it’s not like there are only two choices: 1- Do nothing, or 2- Better than nothing. There is also a third: Worse than nothing. I fear Romney’s speech today is a big net negative: counterproductive rather than marginally better than if he had stayed on the sideline. To be clear, I applaud the making of the case against Trump. My gripe is about the way Romney executed the mission.

Ross concedes toward the end of his column that Romney failed to “admit his own mistake in accepting Trump’s endorsement four years ago.” That, to put it mildly, is putting it mildly. Romney did not just accept Trump’s endorsement, he first aggressively courted it. Then, upon getting it, he lavished cringe-worthy praise on Trump – who was exactly the same scoundrel then as the one Romney described today. No one need take my word for it. Romney’s lauding of Trump is here. It’s also all over the radio, on TV, and on political websites across the net. I have a hunch it will be prominently featured by Trump in tonight’s debate. According to Romney in 2012:

Donald Trump has shown an extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works and create jobs for the American people. He’s done it here in Nevada. He’s done it across the country. He understands that our economy is facing threats from abroad. He is one of the few people who stood up and said, “You know what? China has been cheating. They’ve taken jobs from Americans. They haven’t played fair. We have to have a president who will stand up to cheaters. We believe in free trade and free enterprise, but we don’t believe in allowing people to cheat, day in and day out.”

I spent my life in the private sector – not quite as successful as this guy [pointing to Trump]. Nonetheless, sufficiently successful to understand what it takes to get America to be the most attractive place in the world for innovators, entrepreneurs and business— and job creators…. So I want to say “thank you” to Donald Trump, and I look forward to seeing you out on the trail. Thank you, Donald.

Precisely because of Romney’s stature – as Ross puts it, “he can drive media attention in a way that” other Republicans opposing Trump cannot – I believe the big story coming out of Romney’s speech will turn out to be not Romney’s attack on Trump but this 2012 paean to Trump’s business acumen, knowledge of the global economy, job-creating prowess, and tough-on-China trade approach.

It is simply unbelievable that Romney did not say something to draw the sting of the breathtakingly contradictory portrayal of Trump he offered just a short time ago. Stephen maintains that Romney’s speech today was a well-conceived attack on Trump’s “brand” – a shredding of Trump’s business savvy as only Romney could do it because Romney “is a successful businessman from the world of Trump.” Yeah, except what everyone is now watching, and will doubtless be shocked by, is Romney declaring that Trump is a more successful businessman than Romney, that Trump is one of the world’s greatest job creators and most astute analysts of economic trends.

And the thrust of gentleman Mitt’s very un-Romney-like scorching of the earth today was that Trump is “a phony, a fraud.” If that’s the point you want to make, you’d better not come off like, well, a phony, a fraud.

This performance is going to rub a lot of people the wrong way. I know it rubbed me the wrong way. Not because I found much with which to disagree; because my first reaction on hearing Romney today (i.e., before I was reminded of the gushing tribute to Trump) was: Where was this Mitt in the third debate against Obama? That night, Romney bent over so far backwards to agree with the foreign policy of Obama (whose foreign policy is probably the worst in American history) that dismayed Republican supporters feared he might just go ahead and endorse the president.

My main takeaway from Romney’s speech today is that Republican leaders simply do not grasp the dynamic of the schism within the party. It is obviously important to make the case that Trump is a con-man and a cretin. No, it will not change the minds of Trump’s most ardent supporters, but they are not the target audience. The target is the majority of voters who could either rationalize swinging to Trump or be persuaded that he’d be a disaster. We should all get why it is crucial to make the anti-Trump case to them.

But there is a second element that cannot be ignored, no matter how much leading Republicans seem determined to ignore it: The anger at Republican leaders that has ignited insurgent candidacies – candidacies whose combined level of support dwarfs that of leadership’s preferred candidates. That anger is fueled by the perception that (a) nothing GOP leaders say can be trusted, and (b) GOP leadership is meek when dealing with Obama but vicious when attacking conservative or outsider candidates.

Today, Romney played to type. Yes, he made a strong case against Trump, but for many of Trump’s current and potential supporters, what matters is not Trump’s personal downsides but his utility as the vessel to convey their rage against a bipartisan system that ignores them when it’s not screwing them, and that is doing great damage to the country. The cataloguing of Trump’s failings is irrelevant to many of them – in fact, in a perverse way, the more of a rogue he is, the more he becomes just the middle-finger they want to flip at Washington.

So while Trump has to be attacked, attacking him in a manner that just reminds convincible voters of everything they detest about Republican leaders is counterproductive. It is worse than nothing.

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