Max Boot: Let’s hope Mitt Romney can give the GOP some backbone

On the first day of the new year, incoming Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, threw down the gauntlet to President Trump. His very first words in a Washington Post commentary were: “The Trump presidency made a deep descent in December.” He went on to promise: “I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.”

Romney has been attacked for supposedly being two-faced when it comes to Trump. This is the same Romney, after all, who auditioned to be Trump’s secretary of state in November 2016 and who in February 2018 gladly accepted Trump’s endorsement for his Senate campaign. Like most politicians, Romney is open to the charge of inconsistency. In his own defense, however, he can argue that he was willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt — and that the president has shown he no longer deserves any such benefit. Through his conduct over the past two years, Trump has vindicated the warnings of his critics — and no one was a more perceptive or biting critic than Romney himself.

Inspired by Romney’s commentary, I went back and reread the speech Romney gave on March 3, 2016, denouncing then-candidate Trump. It is eerie to see how Romney’s warnings have, by and large, been vindicated — or even exceeded.

Romney was most off-target in saying, "If Donald Trump's plans were ever implemented, the country would sink into prolonged recession." But he may be proved right before long, given the signal being sent by the stock market, which just concluded its worst year since 2008. Romney was certainly right to warn that Trump's "proposed 35 percent tariff-like penalties would instigate a trade war and that would raise prices for consumers, kill our export jobs and lead entrepreneurs and businesses of all stripes to flee America." Even a lower level of tariffs has cost the economy billions and triggered an $11 billion bailout of farmers.

Romney was also correct that Trump's "tax plan in combination with his refusal to reform entitlements and honestly address spending would balloon the deficit and the national debt." Since Trump came into office, total U.S. public debt outstanding has risen by $1.9 trillion, roughly the size of Brazil's gross domestic product.

The record-breaking turnover of the Trump administration, with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly the latest senior officials to leave, has vindicated Romney's warning about Trump's managerial ineptitude: "Whatever happened to Trump Airlines? How about Trump University? And then there's Trump Magazine and Trump Vodka and Trump Steaks and Trump Mortgage. A business genius he is not."

And Romney was accurate in his caution that Trump's lack of policy knowledge would hinder his ability to implement his grandiose promises, from repealing Obamacare to bringing "jobs home from China and Japan." As Romney noted, "His prescriptions to do those things are flimsy at best. At the last debate, all he could remember about his health-care plan was to remove insurance boundaries between states."

When it came to foreign policy, Romney might have been judged wrong as recently as November in his warnings about Trump’s approach to the Islamic State: “Let ISIS take out Assad, he said, and then we can pick up the remnants. ... This ... is recklessness in the extreme.” But now that caution has been amply vindicated because Trump is withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, which indeed leaves the Assad regime to deal with the Islamic State — something it is neither capable of nor interested in doing.

Romney was right, too, to warn that "Mr. Trump's bombast is already alarming the allies and fueling the enmity of our enemies." Trump is not standing up to Iranian aggression in Syria or Russian aggression in Ukraine while regularly lambasting our NATO allies.

Most of all, Romney was right that Trump “lacks the temperament to be president”: “Dishonesty is Donald Trump’s hallmark. ... Think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities. The bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.” At the time Romney spoke those words, it was possible to imagine that Trump would grow in office. Now we know he is actually getting worse. The Post Fact Checker found that, in 2018 Trump, averaged more than 15 falsehoods a day — “almost triple the rate from the year before.”

Romney actually understated the problems with Trump. He was right to call Trump “a con man, a fake” who will “never ever release his tax returns.” But he could not have anticipated that Trump and his organizations would be the subject of 17 investigations by prosecutors — or that his national security adviser, campaign manager and personal lawyer would all become convicted felons.

Perhaps Romney’s biggest mistake was his implicit assumption that the Republican Party would push back against this “phony” and “fraud.” With Jeff Flake no longer in the Senate, John McCain no longer on this earth, and Lindsey Graham no longer Lindsey Graham, it now falls upon Romney to champion the cause of principled conservatism in Washington in opposition to Trump’s hucksterism and populism. His Post op-ed suggests he is off to a good start.

Max Boot | The Washington Post

Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right."