During Donald Trump’s ascendency in the Republican Party, conservative pundits like William Kristol and Ross Douthat engaged in a sort of fan fiction, imagining that Mitt Romney would rescue the GOP by entering the race or enlisting a like-minded candidate.
“He came pretty close to being elected president, so I thought he may consider doing it, especially since he has been very forthright in explaining why Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton should not be president of the United States,” Kristol told The Washington Post after courting Romney in a May 2016 meeting. And if not? “Obviously, if there were to be an independent candidacy, Romney’s support would be very important.”
Romney passed on challenging Trump for president, but did try to recruit someone who would. When that effort soon failed, Douthat wrote this lament: “Of all the strange images of this strange campaign, I find myself particularly struck by this vision: Mitt Romney, pacing alone in one of his many houses, his angst evident in his faintly mussed-up hair, placing pleading phone calls to Republican politicians asking them to run as a third-party candidate against Donald Trump.”
Now, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch’s announcement Tuesday that he won’t be running for re-election has cleared a path for Romney to replace him—and allowed pundits to again indulge in the fantasy that the Never Trump movement has at last found a leader. “Until now, the Republican establishment has lacked a figurehead behind which it could mobilize against Trump,” National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn wrote. “If Romney runs for Hatch’s position, he will be poised to challenge Trump in the 2020 Republican primary and to seek to rejuvenate the GOP establishment.”
Dreams die hard, and the fantasy that Romney will lead a revival of traditional conservatism in the GOP remains strong not just among Never Trump Republicans, but many centrists. But it remains exactly that: a fantasy. A Senator Romney would only disappoint the dwindling Never Trump movement, which instead should look to political figures outside of the Washington establishment.
Romney was unusually forthright in condemning Trump as unfit for the presidency. “If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.” Romney told listeners at the Hinckley Institute in Utah in March of 2016. “Think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities. The bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics.”
Remembering those words, some pundits believe he could become the voice of conservative resistance to the president. Aaron Blake of The Washington Post argued that a Senator Romney, enjoying the safety of a Republican seat in a deep-red state and being extremely popular among Mormon voters, would have more leeway to criticize Trump than other Republicans: “Romney’s credibility with the GOP base there provides him a unique opportunity to go head-to-head with Trump, should he decide to do so. He would also do so in what is likely to be a pretty closely divided Senate, where one vote can matter greatly (as we’ve discovered frequently over the last year).”
Blake’s liberal colleague Greg Sargent believes it would be salutary to have a Republican senator who has called Trump unfit for office, since it will create a test for judging both Romney and the party. “I don’t think Romney will pass this test,” Sargent acknowledged. “If he does not, this will have a perverse value of its own, illustrating once again that Republicans must jettison their own principles to accommodate themselves to Trump, in ways that they themselves know are dangerous to their country’s future, to get along with GOP voters and make their way within the party.”
Sargent’s argument for a Senator Romney is the most realistic because Romney likely would fail this test. In fact, he already has.
Long before criticizing candidate Trump, Romney legitimized him and even set the stage for him. Romney welcomed Trump’s endorsement during the 2012 GOP primary, even though Trump’s most famous political stance was Birtherism. By doing so, and appearing on stage with Trump, Romney gave his stamp of approval to Trump’s racial politics. The campaign that Romney ran that year, with its emphasis on immigration restriction and nostalgia for alpha-male managerial expertise, was a forerunner to Trumpism. Romney’s electoral strategy was based on maximizing the white vote, which Trump imitated (and proved more successful at it).
As Douthat tweeted in December of 2015, Romney and Trump had much in common:
Given these commonalities, it wasn’t surprising that Romney was willing to degrade himself in a craven bid to become Trump’s secretary of state, which squandered his credibility as a critic of the president and generated a famously cringe-inducing photo.
Romney’s humiliation wasn’t just a personal matter, but follows a pattern we’ve seen in other Republicans like Lindsey Graham who were brave critics of Trump, but eventually debased themselves before him. This tendency is all the more likely in members of Congress, who are in a co-dependent relationship with the president. Like other Republican senators, Romney would find that he can only exercise power to the extent he agrees with his party and its standard-bearer.
There’s a further problem with Romney: If he became the face of Republican opposition to Trump, then he would make that movement seem old and tired, tied to the failed Republican establishment that made Trump attractive. “If elected, Romney would instantly become perceived as ‘the leader of the Republican opposition’ to Trump, and I’m not sure that’s such a good idea for the cause of conservatism,” National Review’s Jim Geraghty wrote. “Fairly or not, Romney is the man who took on a flawed incumbent Democratic president and came up short. He turns 71 on March 12. No doubt he’s in fine physical and mental health, but he is not the future of the Republican Party or the conservative cause.”
If anti-Trump Republicans want a champion who can take on the president, they should look outside of Washington and find someone younger. A governor of a purple state like John Kasich, of Ohio, or an independent candidate like Evan McMullin, a former CIA office who ran against Trump in the general election last year, would both be in a better position to articulate a post-Trump conservatism than Romney is. Kasich could speak to Trump’s failure to deliver on his populist promises, and McMullin could articulate a principled objection to Trump’s lawlessness. Both men are untainted by Trump. Romney is not.