Romney’s Game

Mitt Romney is trying to be president.

When Mitt Romney took the stage yesterday at the University of Utah to inveigh against Donald Trump, there was a widely shared sense (if my Twitter feed is any indication) that he was making a noble attempt at saving his party, and perhaps the country, from self-destruction. Selflessly exposing himself to a fresh set of volleys from Trump, Romney sought to awaken his party to the danger ahead if it continued to allow Trump to strut all the way to the nomination. And you know what? It was nice to see him. No longer a political candidate, he seemed more like our cuddly, rich grandpa. Guys! Listen to grandpa!

This narrative wasn’t making sense to me. Surely, Romney must know that by coming out of hiding to attack Trump for his indecorousness, he would only put in clearer relief the contrast that Trump wants to make anyway: The old-style party establishment wants Trump to play nice, but Trump is here to shake the place up and tell it like it is. Romney’s displeasure with Trump is about as impactful to Trump voters as McCain’s disdain. Hey, let’s find out if Taft will go after him! Romney must be aware of this, and few politicians are as hyper-self-aware as he is. And he’s not an idiot.

Now think about how Romney’s hits against Trump were almost entirely about style, tone, and tactics. Don’t say “ban all Muslims,” you see, because that upsets potential allies. Never mind that it’s also just awful. But he did have a litany of policy and character hits against another front-runner, Hillary Clinton. In a speech ostensibly designed to convince people not to back Trump (which I don’t think it actually was, really), the person Romney was really attacking the most viciously was Hillary Clinton.

He also didn’t suggest one candidate to support over Trump. Instead, he urged people to vote strategically so that the remaining three candidates score disparate wins in their most favorable respective states. But that’s not a recipe for defeating Trump. At best, it’s a strategy to thin the delegate spread, and maybe, just maybe, deny Trump a majority and force a brokered convention.

Finally, he never even made a glancing reference to the fact that he sought and won Trump’s endorsement in 2012, that he praised him every which way in their joint appearances. To lend genuine credence to his argument that Trump had to be stopped, he could have at least acknowledged his own past association, to chalk it up to the needs of a different time and circumstance, acknowledge that it’s a little awkward now, but assert that this conviction is too important to allow the 2012 endorsement to stop him from saying what needs to be said. I mean, anything would have helped. But he said absolutely nothing about it.

So let’s add this up. He formally attacks the GOP frontrunner as unacceptable, knowing that doing so only solidifies said frontrunner’s support. He attacks the likely Democratic nominee with far more heat than he does the ostensible target of the larger speech. He eschews an endorsement of an alternative to Trump, but instead advocates for a strategy that would result in a brokered convention. And he pretends his previous bonhomie with Trump never happened.

Romney is trying to be president. What he’s hoping, I think, is that he can use his elder-statesman, above-the-fray status to nudge forward a process that ends with a desperate party drafting him at the convention. He may also, in fact, really hate Donald Trump, but that is incidental. Romney delivered what was more or less a campaign speech mainly for the benefit of the general electorate. He’s positioning himself as the sane, wise, dignified leader, contrasting with Trump on style as a candidate, but more importantly to him, contrasting with Clinton on substance as a president.

You know he must be kicking himself for not running this time around. I don’t think there’s much else that drives Romney, other than his family, than his need to be president. I don’t mean to imply this is an evil or shallow need. I think it may be very deeply felt that he’s supposed to be president to help save/heal/improve the country.

He must also know that this gambit has very little chance of success. But if it fails, he loses nothing. He remains where he is, and we remember that he tried to warn us. But if it works, he gets one more shot at the White House. He wouldn’t need to be vetted again, he’s known and largely respected by the electorate. He’d be seen as a safe, known, comfortable choice by many. And I have no doubt that he thinks he can beat Clinton.

He’s wrong, of course.

So don’t give Romney too much credit. Rather than sticking his neck out for the sake of his country, he’s quietly and slyly placing his hat into the ring, and hoping we don’t notice. Hey, who threw that hat in?

Oh, look at that. Is that my hat? Well, if you insist.