No one joins an ultra-dignified personal carriage to pusillanimity like Mitt Romney: That much we already know. The man from Michigan ... and Massachusetts ... and Utah! ... has rightly been chided, yet again, for sucking up to President Trump, a man he so clearly despises. What's surprising is how, for someone preternaturally attuned to the direction of prevailing ideological winds, Romney is so badly misreading this political moment.
The rollout of his U.S. Senate campaign last week was all about "Utah values" and "respect" for rivals, as opposed to the sordidness and mudslinging of polarized, Trumpified Washington, D.C. McKay Coppins of The Atlantic writes the following of Romney's passive-aggressive, lead-by-example, none-dare-call-it-by-name gambit:
Rather than define himself as the Republican antidote to Trump, he will champion a brand of Republicanism that he believes could be the antidote to Trumpism. Rather than barnstorm the state with withering condemnations of the president's character — as he did in 2016, when he denounced Trump as a "phony" and a "fraud" — he will seek to advance a proactive policy vision to contend with Trump-style nationalism. [The Atlantic]
Good luck with that.
It's not merely that Romney has chosen to soft-pedal his criticism of both candidate and President Trump. It's not merely that being Sir Respectful will mean nothing if it doesn't translate into genuine, active, and aggressive congressional oversight of an executive branch that is rife with corruption and self-dealing. The problem is in the way that Romney is framing his exemplary opposition: Conservatism — his conservatism — is the antidote, and Trumpism is the poison.
This is wrong.
If there's anything we've learned from the Trump presidency, it's that Establishment Conservatism Inc. functions just fine with Trumpism in its veins. Here's an alternative metaphor: Trumpism is the fuel. Establishment Conservatism is its exhaust fumes.
Trump and his congressional abettors may not seem like a gang that can shoot at anything except their own feet. And yet, they're securing most of what they want from this administration. It's not just the massive tax giveaway to corporations and owners of capital. There's the spate of federal judicial appointments; the slow, methodical undermining of the Affordable Care Act; industries like oil-and-gas and financial services overseen by erstwhile insiders (if they're being overseen at all, rather than simply hollowed out); and, most recently, the lifting of budget caps on the military that must have defense contractors positively salivating.
By this point, you've no doubt objected that Trump's polling numbers are historically low. You're confident that, with big Democratic victories in Virginia and Alabama (!) last year and soaring enthusiasm in special elections across the country, Republicans will be punished at the ballot box this November.
But it's far from clear this will be the case. After a rough 2017 in which the party was splintered over how to deal with ObamaCare, rank-and-file Republicans are closing ranks behind the president. The GOP's numbers in the generic congressional ballot have seen steady incremental improvement along with Trump's overall approval rating. Significantly, the tax cut bill is above water for the first time since it was enacted late last year. It will be the centerpiece of a "Good Times Are Here Again" midterm campaign strategy that highlights steady economic growth and declining unemployment.
Is it any wonder President Trump has enthusiastically endorsed Romney? We have a long way to go between now and November. Events — some unforeseen calamity or crisis, not to mention a certain investigation led by Robert Mueller — may conspire to doom Republicans. But, right now, Trump would be justified in telling Romney to save his "antidote" and to grab a bathing suit — because the water's fine.