This not-so-grand bargain has rarely been so obvious as since the publication of Mitt Romney’s op-ed.
In his piece, Romney offered no real policy differences with Trump; in fact, the senator from Utah has actually endorsed things like the border wall. Instead, he took Trump to task for a character deficiency. Trump, Romney argued, “has not risen to the mantle of the office.”
Since the piece came out Tuesday night, Republicans have rallied around the president and rebuked Romney. What’s telling though: No one is really saying Romney is wrong in criticizing Trump’s core. Rather than take issue with that conclusion, Trump’s most vocal defenders are arguing that it’s simply not that important in the grand scheme of things.
The most high-profile example came from Romney’s own niece, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. In a tweet Wednesday, she wrote: “For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack @realdonaldtrump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and is disappointing and unproductive.”
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich took to Fox News to echo that Romney should back off — because he can’t beat Trump anyway.
Former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Romney should train his fire on Democrats rather than the Republican president. “If Senator-elect Romney thinks Trump is a bigger problem than Nancy Pelosi or Senator Schumer, then he has a lot to learn about how things get done in Washington,” Fleischer said.
And in a Washington Post op-ed, conservative writer Henry Olsen suggested that Romney was hurting the Republican cause. “Romney would like you to believe you can have your cake and eat it, too — that you can be against Trump’s character but for his policies,” Olsen writes. “But that doesn’t work in the real world. Railing about character hurts the president, and Republicans know that.”
You’ll note that none of these defenses actually vouch for Trump’s character or say Romney was wrong. Instead, they’re admitting this is all about pragmatism and teamwork. They’re saying that the goals of the Republican Party matter more than the quality of the president’s person.
McDaniel and Gingrich both diminish Romney as a freshman senator, suggesting he’s out of line to question Trump. The irony is especially thick here with Gingrich, who literally built his political career as a backbencher taking on and defeating more powerful and senior politicians, including in his own party.
Fleischer and Olsen both prop up straw men, suggesting Romney is ranking Trump’s character too high on his list of priorities. Fleischer suggests that Romney said Trump is a bigger problem than Democrats. (Romney never said that.) Olsen writes that “the article’s premise [is] that President Trump’s character is more important than his accomplishments or principles.” (Romney also never said this.)
The combined argument seems to be that you shouldn’t say things that hurt your team and that you shouldn’t criticize something if there is something else that is a bigger problem. But that leaves almost no room to say anything, short of utter, imminent disaster.
Maybe Romney thinks the Democrats are also a big problem and that Trump’s policies are great, but that character is also important and should be addressed? Perhaps he recognizes that lots of Republicans praise Trump’s wins and attacks on Democrats, but believe there is a dearth of Republicans willing to raise this important issue?
Those very logical arguments aren’t countenanced by the most prominent defenses of Trump. Instead, leading voices in the GOP seem to be arguing that tribalism is the end goal — that the ends justify the means. The party of values and morality is increasingly arguing that such ideals are mere speed bumps on the way to conservative policy goals. And they’re saying it publicly.
What might be most notable, though, is what they’re not saying: that anything Romney wrote about Trump’s character is wrong.