Mitt Romney just showed Trump how a president should act
In the last two days we've seen starkly different approaches to politics and leadership from the Republican Party's last two presidential nominees. The catch: the one acting presidential is not the man who occupies the White House. Instead, what we should want — and in fact demand — from our president is the behavior modeled by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) in deciding to vote to convict President Trump, and not the style that animated Trump's State of the Union Address.
On Tuesday, Trump delivered the most partisan, divisive, red-meat filled State of the Union address in recent memory. At the beginning, as he listed off the achievements of his administration, he made sure to do it by contrasting with the Obama administration. He also ripped Democratic-run states like California. Not surprisingly given Trump's track record, the speech included outright lies — like his claim that "we will always protect patients with pre-existing conditions — that is a guarantee," even as his administration sues to have the Affordable Care Act ruled unconstitutional, which would eliminate the legal protection for Americans with pre-existing conditions.
The speech also hit on a full panoply of hot button cultural issues, from gun rights to abortion to even school prayer, a topic that the last Republican President George W. Bush, does not appear to have mentioned in any of his eight State of the Union addresses. And Trump's speech included a dystopian segment on immigration and so-called sanctuary cities that included a graphic description of a "gruesome spree of deadly violence" purportedly carried out by an undocumented immigrant (an "illegal alien" in Trump's words, using the most inflammatory term possible).
Maybe the capstone: awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, to controversial, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh — a path blazer to be sure, but one considered to be a force for spreading bigotry, hatred, and division by most liberals, with ample evidence to support their contention.
Yes, the speech included soaring lines touting the state of affairs like the invocation that, "America's future is blazing bright," or the claim that "our economy is the best it has ever been." And true, Trump also devoted time to touting gains in African-American communities — thanks to "Opportunity Zones"— and to things like combatting opioid addiction, criminal justice reform, fixing America's broken infrastructure, and tackling prescription drug prices that had appeal far beyond his conservative base.
But the tone of the speech was harsh, and included far more barbs than the usual address, regardless of which party controlled the White House. While every president gets digs in at opponents and criticizes initiatives they dislike, Trump has used far more inflammatory language and frames that seemed designed to inflame and "trigger the libs." While it would have made for a perfectly fine campaign speech, one that might've hit all of the right notes for building the sort of coalition that Trump will need for re-election, it felt like a missed opportunity to rise above our deep divisions, and try to bring Americans together.
The State of the Union, with all its pomp and pageantry, offers a unique opportunity to do so — and Trump missed it.
Contrast that to the actions of Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012. Knowing that all of his Republican colleagues would vote to acquit Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, and knowing therefore that regardless of how he voted, Trump would be acquitted, Romney chose the most politically painful path.
While other Republicans like Lamar Alexander, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins all claimed that Trump's behavior was wrong or inappropriate, they asserted that it didn't rise to the high bar for removal from office. The president and his most ardent Senate supporters even continue to insist that he did nothing wrong.
Yet, there was Romney, in "the most difficult decision" of his life, voting to convict Trump on one article of impeachment because, "really, corrupting an election process in a democratic republic is about as abusive and egregious an act against the Constitution—and one's oath—that I can imagine. It's what autocrats do." Nonetheless, he voted to acquit on the second article, ensuring that he'd please no one. In short, Romney put country and facts over party and self-interest.
The reaction was swift, with the president's son, Donald Jr., calling for him to be expelled from the Republican Party, and other voices, like talk radio host Buck Sexton, saying that Romney cared so much about conservatism that he was "willing to backstab the most effective defender of [a list of conservative priorities] and hand the lunatic democrat-socialists a win." Another conservative pundit, Todd Starnes, was even harsher, charging, "Mitt Romney is a chicken-hearted coward who lacks the decency or the man-parts to stand with this president."
As angry as Republican officials and conservatives were with him, it is Romney who Americans should be thankful for today. We desperately need leaders who inspire confidence even from those who disagree with them, and whose willingness to put our national needs and the integrity of our political system ahead of their own best interests or the interests of their parties restores faith in our institutions.
In many ways, this is Trump's greatest flaw — among many — as president. After triumphing over both the Republican and Democratic establishments in the 2016 election, Trump had a unique freedom to blaze a new political path. He could have partnered with Democrats on issues where he agreed like prescription drugs and infrastructure, and Republicans on issues where he favored their positions like immigration, climate change, and taxes. He could have forged an appeal to Americans across ideological lines, and freed elected officials from demands that they conform to orthodoxy.
Instead, his instinct is to always play to his base, while never letting a slight go. Even at moments when protocol and history call for presidents to salve a wound or bring Americans together, Trump takes pot shots at his enemies and sows discord.
This is toxic. It fuels polarization, gridlock, and deep cynicism among Americans. As we enter a presidential primary and then general election, we need a leader who can heal wounds, find common ground, and develop innovative solutions to the problems plaguing Americans of all races, creeds and ethnicities.
We need someone more like Mitt Romney than Donald Trump.