Romney's Revealingly Empty Rebuke of Trump

by Neil H. Buchanan

It was never quite clear why Mitt Romney, the Republicans' failed 2012 presidential nominee, decided to run for the U.S. Senate.  He is turning 72 in March, he has no particular policy interests that seem to motivate him, and he was signing up for a job that often comes with almost no power or responsibility.

True, he knew that he could win easily (running in his current home state of Utah), but even that required some humiliating suck-up time to get Republican voters to forgive him for saying nasty things about Donald Trump in 2016.  Why take the job at all?

We still have no way to know the answer to that question, but we do have two clues, neither of which gives any reason for hope that Romney will be a uniquely positive force in the Senate.

First, he is clearly not in Washington to leverage his experience and (undeserved) reputation for seriousness to become a de facto leader in his own right.  Setting aside how difficult it would be to take an actual leadership position from one of the long-tenured (old white) guys in the Senate Republican leadership, Romney could have set himself up as the un-Freshman, willing to use his fame to push the leadership in what he views as the right direction.

The new Congress is barely two weeks old, and we of course cannot know what is going on behind the scenes, making it possible that Romney is or soon will be making real noise.  Even so, the government shutdown offers him a perfect opportunity to step into a leadership void.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is shockingly AWOL, which is truly unexpected, given that McConnell is the wily political tactician who (perversely but thankfully) managed to convince even some Tea Partiers that suspending the debt ceiling and then reinstating it at a higher level was somehow not the same thing as increasing the debt ceiling.  Fig leafs are McConnell's specialty, yet he is lying low.

This could be, therefore, a golden opportunity for Romney to make early waves.  Yet it is West Virginia's Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin, who made headlines this week with talk about organizing some back-benchers to negotiate a bipartisan plan to end the shutdown.  Again, maybe Romney is picking his moment, and perhaps he will even take over Manchin's show, but as of now, Romney has not been reported in any attempt to involve himself in solving the most pressing in the country at the moment.

Second, we do have a sense of what Romney does want to do while he is in D.C., and it appears to be to act as a moral scold -- but a moral scold who does nothing of substance and supports the radical Trump/Republican agenda in full.

The easiest move in the world was for Romney to join in the sudden Republican freakout over Congressman Steve King's latest racist remarks.  After King defended the terms "white nationalist" and "white supremacist," Romney piled on by saying that King "ought to step aside and I think Congress ought to make it very clear he has no place there."

This is a quintessential Romney move, acting morally outraged in a situation where he has no power but can get his face in front of a camera so that he can be praised for saying what any decent person would say.  There is nothing wrong with his saying it, of course, but it all seems more than a bit hollow and self-serving.

The more prominent example of Romney's pose as a moral scold, however, was obviously his briefly famous Washington Post op-ed on the first day of the new Congress, in which he owned a news cycle by writing that "the president has not risen to the mantle of the office."
Romney thus showed how much he has in common with his running mate in his ill-fated presidential candidacy, former House Speaker Paul Ryan.  Even though both Romney and Ryan lied their way through their 2012 campaign, they both held -- and continue to hold -- themselves out as somehow morally superior to those whom they condemn without actually taking action against anything Trump does.

Indeed, Romney's choice of Ryan was itself a display of Romney's weakness, as he capitulated to the hardest-right elements of his party and chose a Vice Presidential candidate whose presence on the ticket thrilled the base but harmed Romney in the polls.  (Ryan was, and is, quite correctly associated with attacks on Social Security and Medicare, even though he has hypocritically accused Democrats of failing to support those programs.)

This is why it was especially amusing to see one of those hardest-of-hard-right Republicans go after Romney for writing his recent op-ed.  Georgia's Senator David Perdue, an almost complete unknown in Washington, was quickly granted space by The Post to write that Romney had made "the same mistake that cost him the White House."  That mistake?  Not saying what the party's most rabid base voters want to hear.  There truly is no satisfying those people.

In any event, Romney's op-ed quickly deflated any thoughts that he was going to try to move the party in a different direction as a matter of policy.  Immediately after his much-quoted line about "the mantle of the office," Romney offered this gem:
"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."
We can all agree, I hope, that the recent changes to criminal laws were moves in the right direction, though far too little and much too late.  But consider the rest of Romney's list:

-- "align US. corporate taxes with those of global competitors": This is Romney's way of endorsing the Republicans' misguided and deeply unpopular tax cuts, cuts that mostly benefited the tiny group of people that includes Mitt Romney.  But note the especially slippery way that he phrases the endorsement, saying that the tax bill merely changed U.S. corporate taxes so that they are now similar to other countries' taxes, apparently merely to level the playing field for all of those put-upon U.S. global corporations.  But we did not "align" our corporate tax system.  As a matter of effective tax rates, U.S. multinationals were already paying very low taxes, and the 2017 Trump/Republican bill lowered the official tax rates (the only way to make Romney's "aligning" comment not a complete lie) while expanding opportunities for tax dodging, thus lowering effective tax rates for corporations even more.  Trump, Romney tells us, was right to do this.

-- "strip out excessive regulations": If a Republican wanted to make a nuanced case for a different direction on policy, he could start by making clear that Trump's regulatory rollbacks have been extreme, reckless, and unprincipled.  Food and water safety rules are being gutted, the EPA is in the pocket of the coal industry and doing its bidding, and workers are being put in ever more dangerous situations.  None of those repudiated regulations were "excessive."  If Romney thinks that Trump's deregulatory zeal is good policy, heaven help us all.

-- "crack down on China's unfair trade practices": There is too much to go into here, but the larger point is that Trump tried to crack down on China for doing things that they were no longer doing, and he then started a trade war with them (but then gave their rogue company ZTE special treatment even after it was found to have violated U.S. law) that is harming American workers, including farmers.

-- "appoint conservative judges":  Here again was an opportunity for Romney to say that the party under Trump has gone to crazy extremes.  There is no reason that a principled conservative should feel forced to say that Trump's judicial appointees have all been good picks.  As a liberal, I can certainly imagine opposing some liberal appointees under a Democratic president, for being either too far left or too far right -- or simply injudicious.  More to the point, Romney could have used his voice last Fall to say that Brett Kavanaugh was unfit for the Supreme Court, knowing full well that Kavanaugh would have been replaced by another very conservative appointee.

This last point is especially galling because Romney's op-ed chides Trump for failing to "unite us and inspire us to follow 'our better angels.'"  He could have said that there is conservative and then there is too conservative.  Or he even could have said that there is no such thing as too conservative but that there is such thing as being temperamentally unsuited for the job.  At a minimum, he could have said that Republicans should not refuse to release records of judicial nominees.  He did none of those things.

Instead, Romney wants to stick to a safe script of saying feel-good things about the "greatness of the American spirit."  He would surely point out that his party attacked him even for this limited heresy, which supposedly proves that he took a real risk by speaking up.  But unless he actually does something to oppose where Trump is taking his party, he will continue to be nothing more than a censorious empty suit.