Oh, great. Mitt Romney is lecturing us about character and decency now. The new year is already shaping up to be a hectoring and annoying one.
Romney, the new U.S. Senator from Utah (by way of Michigan, Massachusetts and California), took to the opinion pages of the Washington Post on Wednesday to chide Donald Trump, whose character the failed 2012 Republican presidential candidate finds wanting.
“On balance, his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office,” Romney wrote in an op-ed that should remind everyone why Trump wiped the floor with establishment Republican candidates in 2016.
Romney offers some tepid praise for some of the president’s appointments and policy victories, lauding Trump’s court appointments, deregulation efforts, tax code overhaul and criminal justice reforms.
“But policies and appointments are only a part of a presidency,” Romney admonishes.
Much of the piece is warmed over chamber of commerce boilerplate. But the real problem is Romney’s premise.
“To a great degree,” Romney contends, “a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow ‘our better angels.’”
This is wrong, and dangerously so. It’s a view that exalts what the libertarian writer Gene Healy has called the “cult of the presidency.” A president is not a king or the country’s dad, though heaven knows it sometimes feels that way. The “public character” of a nation is greater than one man – or at least it had better be.
Romney is auditioning to be the conscience of the Republican Party. It’s a role he is unfit to perform after two failed presidential bids – the first in 2008, when he foundered in the GOP presidential primaries against John McCain, and again in 2012 when he was trounced by Barack Obama.
The appeals to decency ring hollow from a politician who made his fortune dismantling companies and putting Americans out of work, and who held 47 percent of the electorate in contempt.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney told a private audience of donors at a 2012 event that was surreptitiously recorded and leaked to the left-wing Mother Jones magazine. Those 47 percent, he explained, “are dependent upon government ... believe that they are victims … believe the government has a responsibility to care for them ... believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.”
The problem, as more than a few observers pointed out at the time, is that a lot of working-class and middle-class Republican voters pay little or no income tax and also benefit from many of those very same programs.
For all of Trump’s belligerence and braggadocio, you never hear him talk about Americans as “takers” the way Romney did. Instead, as historian and columnist Victor Davis Hanson points out, Trump regularly uses the first-person plural possessive: “our” miners, “our” farmers, “our” vets, and “our” workers.
As Roger Kimball noted at American Greatness the other day, anticipating Romney’s criticism of the president: “I don’t know anyone who voted for Donald Trump, or who later came to support him, because he thought the president was a candidate for sainthood. On the contrary, people supported him, first, because of what he promised to do and, second, because of what, over the past two years, he has accomplished.”
That’s exactly right. For some of us, it was never about the man but the message – not the caricature of the message, but the real thing. Trump articulated an agenda that was unlike anything a Republican had offered in decades. It was an express repudiation of the failed interventionist policies of the Bush and Obama administrations, and a hard slap at liberal internationalist order that Romney touts.
Trump, in fits and starts, has pursued his “greatness agenda.” Better trade deals. Stronger immigration enforcement (including the wall). A foreign policy that doesn’t just give lip service to the national interest but, in fact, puts America first. Appointing judges whose allegiance is to the Constitution as the framers wrote it.
The greatness agenda is a disruptive agenda. It isn’t particularly “conservative.” It disrupts the status quo. It unsettles longstanding alliances. It makes guys like Mitt Romney uncomfortable. It’s also a necessary and overdue corrective.
The freshman senator from Utah can wring his hands about the president’s methods. But the results should speak for themselves.