This will be hyped by most media outlets as a straightforward rebuke to the president, which it sort of is. Romney’s political identity circa 2019 is almost entirely defined by his relationship to Trump, first as the last Republican nominee before the Trump era, then as a vicious critic of Trump’s during the 2016, then as an unlikely Secretary of State candidate for President-elect Trump, and finally as a senator and informal leader of the GOP’s center-right Trump-skeptical wing. Any time Mitt disagrees with POTUS, that disagreement lends itself to a lazy “battle for the soul of the Republican Party” frame.
His speech today is more clever than that, though. Romney chose to focus on a pressing subject on which he *doesn’t* disagree with Trump, the urgent need to cut China down to size and force it to play by the rules on international trade. Beijing, not the White House, is his prime target here, and to emphasize the point Romney made sure to reference his famous comment in 2012 that Russia is America’s chief geopolitical foe. His goal with these remarks was to stress that that’s no longer true. Russia is a nation in decline, he notes (correctly), adding that declining powers can be dangerous. The nation in ascendance is China, and America is ill-prepared to compete with the Chinese if things don’t change soon.
What things, you say? As Romney explains it, only by adopting virtually every major element of the pre-Trump center-right agenda — the Romney 2012 agenda, essentially — can America rise to the challenge. Want to check China’s inevitable military expansionism? Then you need NATO. We’re not going to outfight a nation four times as large as we are that’s catching up in technological sophistication. Want to out-innovate China? Then implement a more forgiving immigration policy, at least for skilled immigrants. Want to win a trade war with China? Then target China with tariffs, not American allies like Canada and Mexico. Build a trade coalition. Want to outlast China? Then don’t allow entitlements to grow to the point where we’re spending more on interest than we are on the Pentagon. Want to unite America behind the goal of checking China? Then don’t use the bully pulpit of the presidency to show “contempt” for your political opponents.
In other words, Romney’s trying to sell Trump (and what few Trump supporters are still open to hearing him out) on the idea that he shares their goals of putting America first and putting China in its place, hoping that that’ll make them more open to input on how we should go about achieving that. His approach to Trump reminds me a bit of the approach taken by Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul, each of whom has chosen to be cronyist towards POTUS in the hope that earning his favor will steer him their way on foreign policy. Romney’s not a crony but he understands that Trump views political actors as either “pro-Trump” or “anti-Trump” and that only those in the first group are capable of influencing the president. Supporting the White House on a major foreign policy strategy is Romney’s way of showing that he’s not strictly anti-Trump. Now maybe POTUS will give him a listen on tactics.
Not gonna work, of course, but it’s a shrewd tone-setter for Mitt’s Senate tenure. Here he is, followed by Joe Biden once again sounding weirdly sanguine about the threat from China. If you’re not up for 15 minutes of video, you can read a transcript of the speech here.