Mitt Romney had quite a few choice words Thursday for Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
None that hadn’t occurred to others, mind you. But to hear the party’s previous nominee portray Trump as a liar and a bully was certainly not politics as usual. Not for the first time in his career, Romney had decided to act as a savior. But this time, instead of saving the Winter Olympics, he was trying to save the Republican Party
“Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” Romney declared in his speech at the University of Utah. “His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the American public for suckers.” Elsewhere in the speech: “Think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities, the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.” By Romney restrained standards, those comments are beyond inflammatory.
Trump countered a few hours later, insisting Romney had begged for his endorsement as a candidate for president in 2012. “If I had said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees,’ Mitt would have dropped to his knees.” Statesmanlike, as always. Trump dismissed Romney as irrelevant, then couldn’t stop talking about him.
I happen to think that almost everything Romney said about Trump was true. But Trump’s rejoinder spoke directly to why Mitt doesn’t make for much of an attack dog. Most of the things he said were also true four years ago, when he was so grateful to accept Trump’s support.
“There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life. This is one of them,” Romney gushed then, sounding like a teen on a date with the homecoming queen. “Being in Donald Trump’s magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight.”
He’s not delighted anymore. He derided him as a theatrical phony, a vacuous showman. He doesn’t think he’s smart enough to do the job, particularly in terms of foreign policy. Perhaps most damningly, he suggested that he’s not much of a businessman.
Those are fair criticisms, but where has Mitt Romney been? Trump has been spouting the same talking points for months, and his mediocre business record isn’t a big secret, either. If the so-called GOP establishment wants to declare war on Trump now, it seems fair to ask why it was so slow to take him seriously. Romney never addressed that.
In a speech that was all about his party’s need to make a better choice, Romney oddly refused to make one himself. Rather than endorsing one of Trump’s remaining opponents, he blandly suggested that any of them would be a better standard-bearer than Trump. By refusing to throw his support behind anyone in particular, he threw away his best chance to have impact.
Then again, was he ever going to have any impact? This GOP campaign has been a revolt against the party elites, and they don’t get any more elite than Romney. His speech, which was mostly very good, seems unlikely to sway many people who weren’t already horrified at the prospect of Trump’s nomination.
To be fair, the only candidate Romney has shown much affection for is Marco Rubio. Anyone can see that Rubio’s campaign is on life support. So Romney doesn’t have anyone to endorse. But the problem with “anybody but Trump” is you can’t beat somebody with nobody.
Romney wants desperately to be a party elder, the adult who can steer his party to some safe harbor. But Trump’s fans are motivated by frustrations that the GOP’s so-called establishment barely grasp. How do you stop a revolt that’s partly against you? Trump’s fans don’t care what Mitt thinks.
These are hard times for the GOP’s wise men. Romney is far from alone in wanting Trump to go away. But many of them have a history of embracing Trump, too. Little did they suspect what those expedient choices would unleash.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.