Jennifer Rubin: A good start for Romney, but what next?

(Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune) This Pat Bagley cartoon titled "Mitt's Moral Compass" appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.

Those of us who have been hoping that Sen.-elect Mitt Romney, R-Utah, will provide real leadership rather than melt into the blob of squishy Senate Republicans were gratified to read his Washington Post commentary reminding us of the centrality of presidential character and promising with regard to President Donald Trump to “speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.”

In particular, he argues that the “departures of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, the appointment of senior persons of lesser experience, the abandonment of allies who fight beside us, and the president’s thoughtless claim that America has long been a ‘sucker’ in world affairs all defined his presidency down.”

The real question will be if and how he translates these words into practice. Let me try connecting some dots between his apt criticisms of Trump and actions that Romney must take.

Let’s start with his complaint about people of “lesser experience” in top jobs. Let’s be candid: Some people have no business leading Cabinet departments or assuming senior-level spots. Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker shouldn’t be in the spot at all, and in any case has disqualified himself from the post by lying on his resume. Will Romney call for him to resign? When it comes to filling the position of ambassador to the United Nations, Romney should vote against Heather Nauert, who lacks diplomatic experience.

Romney hits the mark by decrying Trump’s departure from “our enduring commitment to principled conduct in foreign relations, and to the rights of all people to freedom and equal justice.” He explains, “The world needs American leadership, and it is in America’s interest to provide it. A world led by authoritarian regimes is a world — and an America — with less prosperity, less freedom, less peace.”

That should mean voting for tough sanctions on Saudi Arabia and ending arms sales that facilitate the Saudis' gruesome war in Yemen. Romney must also press for Trump to stick by commitments to finish off the Islamic State and protect the Kurds in Syria. If he wants “stable relationships with the nations of Asia that strengthen our mutual security and prosperity,” he should be pressing Trump to reconsider his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and stop slobbering over Kim Jong Un, who has shown no sign that he actually will denuclearize.

Romney criticizes Trump and other Republicans for wrecking our “fiscal foundation.” That should mean nixing ridiculous spending boondoggles like the wall on the southern border and re-examining the Trump tax cuts that spewed more red ink. Of course, it means reopening the government as soon as possible (What’s the excuse for voting against the clean continuing resolution the Senate previously passed) and ending Trump’s trade wars by reclaiming Congress’s tariff power.

Finally, Romney is eloquent on the need for Trump to "demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect" and to "defend our vital institutions despite their inevitable failings: a free press, the rule of law, strong churches, and responsible corporations and unions." That means ending corruption by voting to end Trump's receipt of foreign emoluments, passing legislation and extracting promises from the attorney general nominee to prevent improper political meddling by the White House in criminal investigations, pressing for resignation or impeachment if Trump has obstructed justice and/or captured the presidency by defrauding voters about payments to ex-paramours and business dealings with Russia through the 2016 presidential campaign.

If Romney does these things — even a good number of them — he’ll help restore the GOP to sanity, end our national nightmare and make an excellent case for his challenging Trump in the 2020 Republican primary campaign. If, however, he’s just going to write commentaries and go along with the Republican crowd that’s scared of Trump’s wrath, he’ll have done his state and the country a great disservice and prompted the question: Why did he bother running for Senate?