ICYMI this weekend, the inevitable counterpunch after Romney tweeted on Friday that he was “sickened” by the Mueller report’s account of Trump’s dishonesty. It’s extremely on-brand, too. The Trumpiest possible reply after being accused of sustained unethical behavior is absolutely to say, “Scoreboard.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 20, 2019
What always surprises me about this criticism of Romney from populists, now including the populist-in-chief, is how little it credits Trump’s beliefs for his victory in 2016. If you’re eager to move the GOP away from Romney-style centrist conservatism and towards something more nationalist, blaming his defeat on his reluctance to attack Obama more harshly is the dumbest possible talking point. You should want to emphasize ideological differences as Trump’s secret ingredient in victory. Unlike the out-of-touch business-class moderate Romney, Trump understood that white working-class voters felt that the GOP was no longer catering to their needs. They didn’t want free markets and forever wars, they wanted tighter trade policies to protect American jobs and money spent on foreign adventures to be reinvested in American communities. And they wanted seriousness of purpose at the border. Yeah, granted, Romney pushed for stronger borders too as nominee (and was criticized for his draconian rhetoric by private citizen Donald Trump) but no one trusts a country-club Republican to crack down hard on illegal immigration. Trump recognized the symbolic power of a wall, just like he recognized that calling for a Muslim ban would show righties that he understood their cultural anxieties even if he couldn’t lawfully ban Muslims for their faith.
That’s the nationalist version of why Romney lost. There’s some evidence to back it up too. Romney himself has spent years trying to explain away his infamous “47 percent” comments late in the campaign that seemed to dismiss Obama’s working-class voters as freeloaders. The fact that Trump passes on that politically potent critique and resorts instead to dopey “you didn’t fight hard enough” shots proves (a) he’s not as invested in remaking the GOP as a durably nationalist party as many of his fans are, and/or (b) he really is incapable of viewing victory and defeat in terms more complicated than “strength” and “weakness,” with “strength” largely defined by how cutthroat you’re willing to be to achieve your goal. If Romney lost, it’s not because the Republican establishment’s policy priorities have been diverging from those of blue-collar voters for many years, with Trump having shrewdly reconnected them. It’s because he never called Obama a Kenyan or whatever. He needed to be tougher.
Romney hasn’t responded and probably won’t, as it’s pointless to try to win an insult war with Trump. His megaphone is bigger, he has many more supporters, and he enjoys sparring. Romney sympathizers already made all the obvious points in his defense on social media after Trump’s tweet anyway. Unlike Trump, Romney was facing an incumbent president in 2012, and not just any incumbent but the man who won more votes in his first election than any candidate in American history. At no point before the 2012 election was Obama’s favorable rating negative, whereas at no point after March 2015 was Hillary’s favorable rating positive. Even so, running against a reasonably popular opponent with all the advantages of incumbency, Romney managed a larger share of the popular vote than Trump did. But all of this is a footnote to history: The only number that counts is 270. Just ask Trump. He’ll tell you.