In case you haven’t noticed, some Republicans are acting very peculiarly about the 2020 presidential race.

Despite the fact that Donald Trump is extremely popular among Republicans, a surprising number of high-ranking GOP politicians are approaching the 2020 race as though Trump is not the party’s presumptive nominee. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has steadfastly refused to rule out a 2020 run. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is “very seriously” considering a 2020 run. Nikki Haley recently cleared her personal Twitter account to comply with State Department ethics rules. According to the former State Department official who wrote those rules, this is “the best available evidence Nikki Haley is contemplating a run for the Republican nomination as early as 2020.”

And then we come to the junior senator from Utah and 2012 GOP nominee for president, Mitt Romney. On New Year’s Day, Romney published an op-ed in The Washington Post that was quite the shot across president Trump’s bow. His opening sentence: “The Trump presidency made a deep descent in December.” It got more critical from there:

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It is well known that Donald Trump was not my choice for the Republican presidential nomination. After he became the nominee, I hoped his campaign would refrain from resentment and name-calling. It did not. When he won the election, I hoped he would rise to the occasion. His early appointments of Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, Nikki Haley, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, Kelly and Mattis were encouraging. But, 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.

To say that this elicited some reaction from Trump and his GOP supporters would be an understatement. Republicans ranging from Rand Paul to Ben Shapiro blasted Romney for writing it. GOP social media was aghast.

Romney responded to all of this by going on CNN and telling Jake Tapper that he was not running for president in 2020. More telling, however, was his refusal to endorse Trump:

The reaction to Romney’s op-ed was pretty pronounced. According to the Washington Examiner’s David Drucker, it “sparked a call from within the Republican National Committee to change party rules to protect Trump from any long-shot primary challenge in 2020.”

Despite all these rumblings, that is all they are at this point. Romney says he’s not running, and the others have been even more circumspect about possible future moves. Democrats, meanwhile, are convinced that Romney is the second coming of Jeff Flake. Romney might talk a good game, but as he said in the op-ed, “I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state, and oppose those that are not.” That is the very definition of a Jeff Flake.

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To understand what is going on, one must appreciate the following facts: (A) Sitting presidents who face a primary challenge tend not to win reelection. See: Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush. (B) The primary challenger usually does not win, either. See: Eugene McCarthy, Ronald Reagan (who didn’t win in 1976), Ted Kennedy and Patrick Buchanan. (C) Reagan aside, within party politics it’s better to be the person cleaning up the mess than the person making the mess.

What I suspect Romney, Haley, Kasich and Hogan are all doing is planning for one of two contingencies. The first is that Trump resigns or is forced out of office due to one of his many mounting scandals, in which case Vice President Pence will be about as strong as Georgy Malenkov. The second is to wait for someone else to make a kamikaze run at Trump during the 2020 GOP primary, paving the way for a less controversial run at the nomination. This requires an odd game of signaling visibility without moving first. What they all need is the equivalent of a pace car, a politician willing to challenge Trump in such a way as to facilitate more viable entrants. But none of them want to be the one to fall on their sword.

The odds are good that none of these people will ever get past the invisible primary stage. But the most telling sign is that Romney decided to fire this shot in the first place. It is not all about ambition; it is easy to believe that Romney is genuinely appalled by Donald Trump. But tactically, Romney must believe that he is in a comparatively strong position back home, and that Trump himself is a very weak incumbent.

If nothing else, this is another signal that casts doubt on Trump’s command of the one group he absolutely needs to command as he starts his 2020 run. And for anyone who thinks that the president has the maturity of a toddler, this is an encouraging trend.

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