Is Mitt Romney the mouse that roared? Or does he pose a real threat to President Trump? In his Washington Post op-ed, Romney bludgeons Trump: ‘the president has not risen to the mantle of his office.’ Move over Elizabeth Warren. It looks like the real civil war will be in the Republican, not the Democratic, party.
Romney has been all over the map when it comes to Trump, seeking his endorsement seven years ago, importuning him for the Secretary of State post, only to denounce him once he’s floundering. Romney’s pious conclusion — ‘the people of this great land 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 — who raise our sights and respect the dignity of every child of God — the ideal that is the essence of America’ — is the kind of bilge that prompted the Republican base to embrace Trump in the first place. But if Trump flames out, it’s the kind of rhetoric that could provide an exit ramp for those mainstream Republicans who have expediently embraced Trump in exchange for tax cuts and judicial appointments and allow them to endorse a call for a restoration of the old order.
What Romney’s move testifies to is a cold calculation that it’s a politically opportune moment to take on Trump. Romney has nothing to lose in criticising Trump. It will elevate his stature in the Senate and win him loads of favourable publicity from the media. He can pose as the conscience of the Senate as he awaits — and helps to accelerate — Trump’s likely downfall. By the end of 2019, Romney may well be the titular leader of the GOP. The greatest threat he poses may not be to Trump, who will almost surely depart office this year, but vice-president Mike Pence, who has been banking on replacing Trump as president and running in 2020.
By his standards, Trump was restrained yesterday in responding to Romney’s broadside: ‘Would much prefer that Mitt focus on Border Security and so many other things where he can be helpful. I won big, and he didn’t. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!’
The question is whether Romney will seek to create his own team. As a former presidential candidate, he instantly commands an authority that no other freshman Senator possesses. He could form a rump faction inside the Senate that regularly opposes Trump, providing cover for Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to machinate in the background. It is McConnell who will have to persuade Trump to resign in exchange for a pardon.
With Romney’s entry into the Senate, Trump knows that he faces one more possible vote in favour of his impeachment. Hence his, by Trumpian standards, fairly emollient Twitter message today. Romney, a man who had no hesitation about strapping the family dog Seamus to the roof of his station wagon on a vacation trip to Canada, would hardly shrink from playing the role of Brutus to Trump’s would-be Caesar.
If Trump weathers the Russia inquiry and numerous investigations into his larcenous businesses, then Romney could always eye a primary challenge in 2020. Money shouldn’t be a problem. With his business background, Romney will enjoy a sway with the corporate elites that are at the heart of the GOP that would allow him to take on Trump.
For NeverTrumpers, Romney’s declaration comes not a moment too soon. William Kristol has stated that the resistance to Trump has now found its horse. Max Boot tweeted yesterday: ‘The GOP desperately needs a principled leader who will stand up to an unfit and out-of-control president. Looks like Sen. Romney will fill that role.’ The record of recent Republican presidents who were challenged in the primaries — Gerald Ford by Reagan in 1976 and George H.W. Bush by Patrick J. Buchanan in 1992 — suggests that Romney could do real damage to Trump’s reelection prospects in 2020. But long before then, the new Romney may be riding high.