I know what you’re thinking, but don’t be skeptical. You guys are gonna love Romney 8.0!
The speech will be carried live by C-SPAN 3 (watch online) and, presumably, the cable news networks, although given how deep in the tank most Fox News hosts are for Trump these days it wouldn’t surprise me if FNC cuts away early on account of Romney being “off-message.” And judging from the early excerpts, he’s going to be way, way off-message:
The speech, according to portions of it released by Romney’s office, will slam Trump as “a phony” and “a fraud” who is “playing the American public for suckers.”
“His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University,” the former governor plans to say at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Romney will argue that “a Trump nomination enables” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to win in November.
“His domestic policies would lead to recession,” Romney will say about Trump. “His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president. And his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”
Meanwhile, here’s what Rupert Murdoch was tweeting yesterday afternoon:
As predicted, Trump reaching out to make peace with Republican "establishment". If he becomes inevitable party would be mad not to unify.
— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) March 2, 2016
Hmmm. Anyway, the hot take among media types this morning is that Romney’s speech is a nothingburger at best and an in-kind contribution to Trump at worst, since it’ll remind everyone in the starkest possible terms just how deeply the establishment, personified by Romney himself, dislikes Trump. He’s going to inadvertently rev up Trump voters! Is that so? Trump voters already seem plenty revved to me. Arguably, they’re the only part of the primary electorate that hasn’t been demoralized. It’s conservatives and undecideds who seem to need some revving up, and a lot of Republicans still like Romney. If you hate him, odds are you’re already on the Trump train. If you think he’s a decent guy, odds are you’re willing to hear him out. If you’re ambivalent, the simple fact that he’s back in the arena waging war on Trump after presumably being retired might catch your interest on the news today. No one’s going to watch this and think, “Well, if Mitt Romney says it’s my duty to oppose Trump, I must!” But that’s not the point of it.
Romney’s trying to do three things here. One, probably most important: He’s going to try to educate voters on Trump’s liabilities. There was a poll circulating on Twitter earlier this week showing how few Republicans are aware of Trump University, Trump’s interview with Tapper about David Duke, and so forth. People who consume political media every day know all about that by now and naturally assume that the rest of the electorate does too. Not so, and the fact that Republican campaigns have run piss-poor oppo efforts against Trump has compounded the problem. Romney’s been through enough campaigns to know that the drama of the GOP’s reining nominee delivering a major speech attacking the likely next nominee means heavy coverage. It’s a more polite version of Rubio’s new strategy: If you want the press to pay attention to you, you need to throw punches at Trump. Romney’s going to exploit that to make an omnibus case against him, much of which will doubtless be new to casual voters who haven’t been paying attention. And of course, given the timing, it guarantees that Romney’s charges against Trump will come up at the debate tonight.
Two: He’ll attempt to freeze the political class before any more of them defect. There are other would-be Christies in Congress and among major Republican donors who are right now considering throwing in with Trump before Ohio and Florida. Having Romney define Trump on national TV as a con man will put pressure on them to hold off, partly because no one wants to be seen supporting someone who’s perceived that way and partly because, as the anti-Trump movement coalesces, the uncertainty of how all of this will play out increases. If there’s a backlash to Trump at the polls this weekend or two weeks from now, fueled in part by the attacks from Rubio, Cruz, and now Romney, prominent Trump supporters may find themselves marooned on a political island with him. Best to hold off a bit longer before endorsing him and see how all of this shakes out. I wonder if that’s why Rick Scott, who was supposedly set to endorse Trump on Tuesday night, backed off at the last minute. When an earthquake is happening, as it is right now in the GOP, the smart move is to find a safe spot and stay there until it’s over.
Three: As I said yesterday, he’s laying down the marker for some sort of #NeverTrump third-party challenge to Trump from the right in case one is needed. Today is a rallying cry for conservatives who refuse to support Trump under any circumstances. Whoever ends up leading the third party this fall, whether Romney himself or someone else, will point back to this speech as a summa of why Trump is unacceptable. It’s a conditional declaration of independence: If Trump is the nominee, some unknown segment of the party is gone. That alone makes the speech significant — if I’m right that this is aimed entirely at the non-Trump wing of the party, writing off Trump supporters as unpersuadable, then it assumes that the party is already split and irreparable to some degree. Romney’s probably not going to mention the idea of an independent run today for fear that doing so might undermine Rubio’s pitch in Florida, but that’s the unspoken threat here, that a schism is now probably inevitable. In fact, Rubio’s all but certain to be asked tonight whether he agrees with Romney’s case against Trump. A few weeks ago he would have been loath to say yes for fear of being seen as the establishment’s fair-haired boy. Now, however, what does he have to lose? Trump fans are already staying home if Rubio’s the nominee. The party’s collapsing. He might as well pitch himself to the other 60-65 percent and say hell yes he agrees.
Actually, there’s one other reason Romney’s speaking up:
Hot take: Romney's a decent man who's doing the right thing.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) March 3, 2016
I remember being told once by the late Dean Barnett, who was a Romney fan even during Mitt’s first run for president in 2008 and who knew Mitt personally, that Romney might come off as a calculating pol but in reality he was “a boy scout” with a driving sense of duty. That would be laughable for most pols, but Barnett meant it. And I respected him enough to believe it. I didn’t know Barnett well, but I know this: He would have enjoyed today’s speech. A lot.
Update: Here’s Trump’s prebuttal to Romney, posted last night on his Facebook page. It’s a fair cop, although I think Romney’s biggest liability as an attack dog against Trump was his willingness to accept Trump’s endorsement in 2012. What changed between then and now, voters will ask, to make Trump unacceptable? Weren’t most of Trump’s flaws already public knowledge by then? The answer is that Romney preferred to have Trump inside the tent pissing out rather than outside the tent pissing in, which is what would have happened if he had rejected Trump’s endorsement at the time. Trump would have spent the rest of the campaign sniping at him from the sidelines. But the fact remains: He happily accepted the support of a guy whom he’s now going to claim is a con man. That’s on Romney to explain in the days (weeks? months?) ahead.
Update: Joel Pollak is live on the scene and says he’s met people on line to get in who are thrilled by Romney’s speech — and others who find it “abhorrent.” The audience reaction could be interesting.