The money question about his new op-ed:

Ed wondered about that too in his post earlier. Ninety-eight percent of Republicans couldn’t care less. Of the two percent that do, figure half are hardcore Trumpers who already hate Romney and are excited for an excuse to hate him even more. The other half are political junkies who’ve already heard Romney make all of the points he made in the op-ed — he thinks Trump is beneath the office, he’d prefer an internationalist approach to nearly all things, but he’ll vote for Trump’s policies when he agrees with them. Even if he wanted to reiterate those points, there was no need to do so in a formal statement the day before he’s sworn into the Senate. He’ll have many opportunities to make his feelings clear as events warrant over the next two years.

One theory which I flagged this morning is that Romney’s laying down a marker in case Trump doesn’t run for reelection, showing the world that he’s still a leading spokesman for the GOP establishment’s vision of domestic and foreign policy if they happen to need a 2020 nominee in a pinch. But that makes no sense. It may be that an establishmentarian can still win the presidency provided that they’re reasonably well-regarded by Trump’s base. That’s Nikki Haley’s theory of 2024. Whether an establishmentarian can win the presidency having made an enemy of Trump’s base is far more dubious, though. Insult the leader and they’re apt to stay home in the general election. The last thing Romney should have done if he had designs on 2020 was to gratuitously attack POTUS.

New theory, then: What if he was signaling to people who’ve been urging him to challenge Trump that he might be interested?

Once fanciful suggestions about organizing a draft campaign for Romney or Nikki Haley, Trump’s former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have suddenly turned more serious, the consultants and lawmakers said…

“There is going to be a real race against Trump in 2020 if it keeps going like this,” [a veteran] Republican financier said, noting that some of Romney’s biggest donors have signaled they are ready to throw their support behind him again if he ever moved toward a run

[S]ome Romney allies, such as his former adviser Mike Murphy, have been talking up Romney 2020 for months behind the scenes without Romney’s involvement, hoping to stoke interest and lay the political groundwork for him, should Trump be impeached or resign…

Spencer Zwick, Romney’s political adviser who built Romney’s donor network for his presidential campaigns, remains a confidant and routinely takes calls from donors urging Romney to look hard at 2020, according to two people familiar with those discussions.

Would donors throw millions away on a doomed candidacy, though, even for their buddy Mitt? I’m operating on the assumption that money would be there only if he had a real chance to win, which he doesn’t. But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe this really is battle-for-the-soul-of-the-party stuff, where Romney runs expecting to get obliterated but feeling obliged nonetheless to offer an alternative to Trumpism to Republican voters. If so, I … don’t see the point of that. “Romney’s op-ed is a big deal,” wrote Damon Linker today. “It’s a sign that the civil war in the GOP that so many pundits talked about during the 2016 election cycle isn’t over yet.” Er, it is sort of over, though; pockets of anti-Trump rebels remain, safe in their redoubt in Utah, but when Romney’s own niece is dogging him on Twitter for daring to criticize His Majesty, The President, the civil war is over for all intents and purposes.

Plus, what would Romney’s case against Trump be, precisely? If it’s that he behaves in a manner beneath the dignity of the presidency, that’s true but not something voters will oust an incumbent president over. Especially Trump: Whatever one may say about him, don’t say that his comportment has been a surprise. If it’s that his isolationist and protectionist streaks are myopic and counterproductive, that’s not a winning message in the modern GOP. Trump’s base likes those parts of his platform and the rest of the party doesn’t dislike them enough to nominate someone new because of them. Romney would need to find a message that’s not only more compelling than Trump’s “Make America Great Again” pitch, he’d need it to be so much more compelling that Republicans would forfeit the advantages of incumbency in the general election to embrace it. And he’d somehow need to do it as someone who, unlike Trump, has proved he’s capable of losing a national election in a landslide. Not happening.

Maybe he’s thinking of an independent run? If anyone could pull together the donor network needed to bankroll that, Romney could. But he’ll get zero Democratic votes; his role in the race would be pure spoiler to Trump. My strong suspicion is that he’d do only marginally better than Gary Johnson did in 2016 as Republican voters inevitably held their noses and opted for Trump on Election Day in hopes of defeating the Democrats. So what’s the point? And let’s say Romney succeeded and tipped the election to the Democrat. How many friends would he have in Congress during the final four years of his term in the Senate? Would even Utahns, who elected him overwhelmingly this year, tolerate a presidential kamikaze mission by Mitt?

My theory of Romney’s op-ed is that he’s laying down a marker not because he intends to run against Trump but because he expects the Trump presidency to crash and burn soon and wants it on the record for posterity that he was off the Trump train before it does. McKay Coppins:

Romney had hoped to enter the Senate on at least relatively good terms with Trump, in the interest of working with the White House on areas of common ground. (In the Post, he expressed support for the president’s corporate tax cuts, his confrontational approach to China’s trade policies, and his support for criminal-justice reform.) But Romney was apparently alarmed enough by recent events in the White House to sacrifice that conciliatory approach in favor of speaking out

How long the Utah senator will maintain this posture is anyone’s guess. But if he continues to keep the president at arm’s length, it’s unlikely he’ll face electoral repercussions back in Utah, where Trump has never been as popular as he is in other red states. According to polling data published recently by the Associated Press, 64 percent of voters in the state want to see Romney stand up to Trump in the Senate.

He has no reason to play nice with Trump at this point and every reason not to. The Mueller report will be released soon-ish; lord only knows what sort of Trump dirt House Democrats will unearth and publicize; Romney’s Senate vote is basically irrelevant to passing legislation thanks to Pelosi’s veto in the House; and he’s probably undefeatable in Utah if he runs for reelection in 2024. Under the circumstances, why not semi-officially declare independence from the president? If Trump’s presidency collapses, Romney gets to stand aside, point to his op-ed, and say, “I told you so, right here.” If it doesn’t collapse, shrug. He’ll be the last establishment soldier hiding in the jungle years after the war ended.