At a time when talk of a 2020 GOP primary has simmered, Trump aides said Romney, on the eve of his swearing in to the Senate, was seeking to define himself as the new leader of the Never Trump movement. They noted that Romney had taken steps in recent weeks to reactivate the national fundraising network he’d established in his 2012 presidential bid: This fall, long before being sworn in, the new senator hosted a fundraiser for his political action committee…
Trump aides worry that a primary challenge would become an unwelcome distraction for the president’s reelection campaign and potentially turn the 2020 GOP convention into a circus. They note that no Republican president has won reelection after a contested primary and point to George H.W. Bush’s bruising 1992 primary against Pat Buchanan as evidence of the damage an incumbent can suffer.
I’m 99 percent sure Romney won’t do it. That last one percent comes from the fact that he’s a man with nothing to lose if he does — he has a stranglehold on his Senate seat for as long as he wants it, he has rich friends willing to bankroll a modest campaign, he palpably loathes Trump’s politics and considers him an embarrassment to the office. He’d make a good personal contrast to Trump too if POTUS ends up drowning in Mueller- or Democrat-driven scandal as the family man who was famously derided for calling Russia our foremost foe in 2012. I think he’d be willing to run on principle even if defeat was assured, provided he could make it competitive.
But to run and be humiliated, losing every contest by 40 points?
The point of a Romney campaign would be to prove that a great minority of the GOP shares his opinions about Trump and his more traditional Republican vision for the country. If he ran and ended up being crushed, it would prove the opposite. It wouldn’t just be personally embarrassing. It would be counterproductive, since it might further sour some fencesitters within the party on that vision. A Romney challenge that ended with Trump losing the general election might force a Romneyesque 2024 contender like Nikki Haley to tilt further towards populism and nationalism than she might prefer, simply to show suspicious primary voters that she’s made a full break with the ancien regime. That’s a bad outcome.
As for Romney’s op-ed yesterday, Bill Kristol repeats a point made by many anti-Trumpers: For all the annoyance at Mitt, no one seems to be disputing the basic charge. There’s plenty of grumbling about disloyalty, most loudly from Trump’s isolationist buddy Rand Paul. (If there’s one thing the Paul family is known for, it’s fastidious loyalty to the GOP.) There’s even a push within the RNC to blow up the 2020 primaries, just in case Romney’s criticism has more traction among Republican voters than most believe. But not a lot of engagement with Romney’s argument on the merits.
So a prominent Republican criticizes Trump, and Trump’s allies don’t try to counter the arguments or make a positive case for the president. Instead, their first reaction is to try rig the system to protect president. This reveals a number of things: (1) The knee-jerk, dime-store authoritarianism of the Trump forces; (2) The degree of panic which has already set in among the Trumpists; and (3) Evidence that beneath the superficially strong approval numbers there is bubbling up discontent—even dread—at the prospect of renominating Trump in 2020.
Dan Drezner thinks Romney, Haley, Kasich, and the rest are lining up to run only if one of two things happens, either Trump declining to run for reelection (“Vice President Pence will be about as strong as Georgy Malenkov”) or some wild-card jumping into the race and polling surprisingly well as the Not Trump candidate, which might tempt a more formidable challenger to jump in as well. I don’t know who might fit the bill in the second scenario, though; maybe Jeff Flake, but it’s almost unimaginable that his numbers would be strong enough against Trump to make Romney or Haley think they have a chance of winning. The only realistic scenario is the first one, that Trump declines to run again — and even then, as an outspoken anti-Trumper and the only prospective candidate who’s lost a general election, Romney would be a hard sell compared to the rest of the field. What’s the case for him over Haley? Or even Kasich?
I think Drezner’s right that the real news out of this CNN interview (apart from Romney saying he supports Trump’s quest to build the wall) is that he won’t commit to endorsing POTUS in 2020. Imagine how that might play out, though. Imagine Flake runs and a bunch of prominent anti-Trump Republicans, beginning with Romney, endorses him over Trump. Trump then proceeds to win the primaries by 80 points. The takeaway would be that traditional Republican establishment opinion is even less relevant to the party’s voters than everyone thought. Is it worth it?