Is Mitt Romney the man to lead a Republican rebellion against Trump? | Eurasia Diary - ednews.net

26 March, Tuesday


Is Mitt Romney the man to lead a Republican rebellion against Trump?

Utah senator’s criticisms raise prospect of a challenge in a party that has all but reshaped itself in Trump’s image

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t this week’s solemn swearing in of the Senate, Vice-President Mike Pence worked his way along a line that included Mitt Romney, a Republican stalwart, Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, and Kyrsten Sinema, the first openly bisexual senator. Just this once, Pence may have felt more at ease with Sanders or Sinema than with his fellow conservative.

Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, added: “The world is also watching. America has long been looked to for leadership … Trump’s words and actions have caused dismay around the world.”

Much was striking about the column, not least the way in which Romney bluntly made reference to “Trump” rather than “President Trump”. It was a rare stirring of rebellion in a party that has all but reshaped itself in Trump’s image. The voice of dissent raised the question of whether the president will face a challenge in the Republican primaries ahead of the 2020 election.

Romney’s timing was a surprise, said strategist Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to and spokesman for his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

“The big question is, is this part of larger plan he has to build a broader coalition of voices that are going to confront the president on policies and rhetoric?” he said. “Some of the backlash was a testament to the fact that there is a fight in the party, but right now Trump is winning it.”

Donald Trump is the manifestation of this era of Republicanism - Michael Steele

The party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan is now the party of Trump. A former Democrat with few ideological positions, Trump hijacked the primaries in 2016 as the ultimate outsider, tearing into the Bush family, House speaker Paul Ryan, Senator John McCain and Romney himself. Trump defeated 16 more conventional candidates with a mix of nationalism, populism, xenophobia and celebrity, then repeated the trick to beat Hillary Clinton to the presidency.

He has arguably given Republicans bangs for their buck: two conservative justices on the supreme court, huge tax cuts for the rich, business regulations slashed. In return, many have turned a blind eye to his contempt for the free market, his willingness to run up the national debt and his embrace of foreign despots at the expense of allies.

This week, for example, Trump randomly declared: “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there.” The statement would have been shaken to Reagan to the core but there was barely a murmur from a party that has something approaching Stockholm syndrome.

Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “Donald Trump is the manifestation of this era of Republicanism and, by and large, Republicans have bought into that narrative, that storyline, that style of leadership. They just have to await the fate of the voting gods, otherwise known as citizens, who will cast the final judgment.”

Ever fearful of the noisy Trump base, Republican opposition in the Senate has withered. McCain, a keeper of the flame of America’s postwar global leadership, died from brain cancer in August. Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, both scathing critics who nevertheless generally voted for Trump’s legislation, have retired. That leaves only Romney and Ben Sasse, a young senator from Nebraska who has proved willing to call out the president.

There is then a second tier of senators, such as Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado and James Lankford of Oklahoma, who have been known to make their displeasure clear, though none appears likely to lead an uprising.

Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, once bitter opponents of Trump, are now among his most ardent cheerleaders, although Graham savaged the recent decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Majority leader Mitch McConnell expressed dismay at the departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, yet was careful to avoid directly rebuking the president.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center think tank in Washington, said: “A lot of people do the game of ‘I disapprove of his tweets’ but, when push comes to shove, they don’t openly disagree with him. Mitt Romney has now put himself in the Ben Sasse camp rather than the Mitch McConnell or Ted Cruz camp.”

‘He’s provided a possible way forward’

In the House of Representatives, Republicans are now in the minority but probably even more conservative and pro-Trump than before. Many moderates from suburban-heavy districts lost their seats in the midterms. Minority leader Kevin McCarthy has positioned himself as one of the president’s closest lieutenants.

The Trump virus has spread to conservative media. Fox News not only lionises him and asks him soft questions but, in football terms, has become a feeder club for the White House. Rightwing broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have been influential in persuading Trump to keep the government partially shut down unless he gets money for a border wall. Conversely, the Weekly Standard, a neoconservative magazine that was a rallying point for Never Trumpers, closed down last month.

That is why Romney’s column in the Post was seen by some as a candle flickering in the dark. John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio and arch Trump critic, tweeted: “Welcome to the fray, Mitt Romney.” Bill Kristol, former editor of the Weekly Standard, wrote: “For now at least Mitt Romney has become the leader of the Republican Resistance to Trump.”

Steele said: “I thought it was more than just a shot across the president’s political bow. Essentially it created a crack in the wall that many inside the party have been creating around Trump that prevented members who would like to sidestep some of his crazy from doing it. He’s provided a possible way forward in drawing some clear line distinctions between the character of the man and the policies of the administration.”

But Steele cautioned against unrealistic expectations that Romney’s conscience will spearhead a Republican rebellion any time soon.

“I think Ben Sasse will probably hold down that space largely by himself,” he said. “I don’t anticipate Mitt Romney really being that vocal out of the box against the president. His problem, because he led off with this op-ed, is going to be when the president says something and – God help us – tweets something he’s going to be the first one the press goes to for response. That’s going to get old for him very quickly. He’ll be mobbed in the corridors.”

Others suggest that Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and business executive, is a flawed messenger. He launched a memorably stinging attack on Trump during the 2016 election but was subsequently photographed dining with him when in contention for the job of secretary of state. He was also content to accept Trump’s support for his recent Senate run.

Olsen said: “It damages his credibility among people he would need to persuade. He’s moved back and forth. When he was up for secretary of state, Trump’s character didn’t seem to matter so much.”

Romney is also out of touch with Republican voters, Olsen argued. “The Republican party on policy is largely behind or significantly open to the kind of innovations Trump has proposed. Mitt Romney tried to put himself on the broad Trump-suspicious track, but anyone who wants to lead the Republican party can’t pretend we live in 2005. Romney fell into that trap.”

‘Somebody does need to challenge the president’

Trump claimed this week that he is “the most popular president in the history of the Republican party”. Eighty-nine percent of Republicans approve of his job performance, according to a Gallup survey last month, although just 39% of all Americans do, which is lower than any president in either party at this point in his presidency since at least 1954.

Trump’s grip on the 164-year-old party could be loosened in the coming year as a partial government shutdown drags on and he faces investigations and possible impeachment from a Democratic-controlled House, turbulence in the markets and the likely conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion with Russia.

The president might face a challenge in the 2020 primaries, potentially from Flake, Kasich, Sasse or even Romney. Flake told CNN last week: “Somebody does need to challenge the president. I’m a long way from there, but somebody needs to and I think that the country needs to be reminded of what it means to be conservative, certainly on the Republican side, and what it means to be decent as well.”

Olsen said: “I’d be shocked if the president didn’t have a primary challenge; he’s too controversial. The only question is, is it moderately serious or purely quixotic?

“If Trump were to die today, Republicans would still want a candidate who says many of the things he does and is willing to fight. The majority of the Republican party is broadly nationalistic and moderately populist. If Trump says, ‘I’ve achieved everything and I’m not going to run again,’ Republicans would want someone with the same positions, not a Sasse or a Romney.”

As things stand, Trump would almost certainly win the primaries but could be mortally wounded. Primary challengers in 1980 and 1992 helped weaken incumbent presidents Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush, both of whom went on to lose.

Charlie Sykes, a conservative author and broadcaster, said: “Right now it’s Donald Trump’s party but it would not be surprising if he did face a challenge from Republicans who are not drinking the Kool-Aid. It would be a tremendously difficult uphill climb. Trump would be overwhelmingly the favourite for the nomination. But that does not mean the case should not be made.”

The Guardian

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