And now here was Mitt Romney, toddling onstage January 1, as dewy and innocent as the diapered Baby New Year. “It is well known that Donald Trump was not my choice for the Republican presidential nomination,” the former Massachusetts governor and losing presidential candidate wrote in the Washington Post, reintroducing himself to the political public as he prepares to join the United States Senate from the state of Utah.
It was well-known, and it’s true: in 2016, Romney called Trump a “fraud,” and denounced the future president’s “bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.”
It is also known, if not quite as well known, that by Romney’s own account, when it came time to vote to make either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton president, he cast a meaningless write-in vote for his own wife, Ann Romney.
So Mitt Romney was using the Post to lodge another gesture of protest, or protest-shaped gesture, which would have no useful effect on the situation it was supposed to be protesting. Donald Trump’s presidency, Romney wrote, had “made a deep descent in December”; the president’s recent actions have “defined his presidency down.” It was a shaky account of the administration’s trajectory—was December meaningfully worse than everything before it?—and a Watergate salad of prepackaged word-ingredients, in which Romney seemed to treat “defined down” as a moral term, rather than the accurate functional one, where Trump is still treated as if he’s president despite being incapable of doing the day-to-day job.
But Romney, like other Republicans playing at dissent, wasn’t interested in talking about governance. Republicans despise governance. Nor was he upset about policy. He’s liked the policies, mostly:
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.
Yes, policies and appointments are only part of a presidency—although, notably, they are the parts of a presidency that a United States senator is in a position to do something about. Rather than using those powers to get leverage over everything else the president might do, Romney chose, like Ben Sasse and the other members of the Statesmanship Caucus, to discuss character.
Donald Trump may be mostly doing the things Mitt Romney and his party want him to do. But he’s not doing them with the proper tone. The president, Romney wrote, is not living up to a president’s duty to “elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect.” The political parties—both of ’em!—must no longer “promote tribalism by exploiting fear and resentment,” he wrote. Maybe he could have sent that part back in time to an earlier incarnation of Mitt Romney, the one who told a room full of donors that 47 percent of the American people were parasites and whose 88-percent-white support at the polls was a less successful test run for Trump’s winning white-bloc electoral math.
“I look forward to working on these priorities with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other senators,” Romney wrote. Mitch McConnell! Mutual respect! Romney continued:
Furthermore, I will act as I would with any president, in or out of my party: I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state, and oppose those that are not. I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault. But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.
If Trump is to be treated like “any president” and supported when he’s doing things Mitt Romney wants done, what’s the point of talking about his character? A Republican with real concerns about Trump’s character might note the example of Brett Kavanaugh—how, in delivering the right-wing Supreme Court justice the party wanted, Trump got Kavanaugh to perform as a groveling toady and a snarling partisan, so that it became impossible to disentangle the means from the ends.
Romney could barely even bring himself to criticize the ends, though, even as he promised to criticize some future set of bad ends, if they ever happened. His account of Trump’s misbehavior did not mention children dying in prison on the border, or the administration blaming parents whose children have died in prison on the border, so whatever anti-immigrant statements or actions Romney plans to speak out against in the future are, presumably, going to be worse than those. And John Kelly, the architect of the border crackdown, was on Romney’s list of the figures whose appointments he had found “encouraging,” only to be disappointed by their departures—along with Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson.
Nevertheless, Romney has always gone far by offering himself up as a blank for other people to fill in with what they hope he might be. So the empty op-ed became a news event, a vessel for other people’s hopes and fears and recriminations. The rest of the Post strung together a whole set of reaction headlines off Romney’s contribution:
• Mitt Romney asserts his independence—and Trump’s GOP critics see an opening
A scathing op-ed by the incoming senator and 2012 GOP presidential nominee is a thunderclap
• The Fix: Romney’s put-up-or-shut-up moment
• The Fix: Op-ed earns an RNC rebuke—from Romney’s own niece
It all sounded very exciting, if you didn’t read the op-ed itself. But by coincidence I was rereading it, just as two emails arrived from the grocery delivery company I use. The company switched last year to a new, over-ambitious logistics center, in the hopes of fighting off the Amazon–Whole Foods alliance, and has been losing track of groceries ever since.
The emails were back-to-back form letters about different undelivered items, and the tone and language of them flowed into the tone and language of Romney’s op-ed, and suddenly I understood what I had been reading: Romney, the Bain Capital man, was writing to America to acknowledge that he was aware the country has been having a dissatisfying experience. He wanted you to know how very sorry he is about it, and to assure you that he heard your concerns, and to convey, as politely as possible, that as long as the investors get what they want, he’s going to make sure nobody does anything to fix the underlying problem.