Good Friday Morning! Welcome to 2019! It’s a new year, with new House leadership, and an ongoing shutdown of the federal government to kick things off. I think they’ll end up fixing the closure in fairly soon and it won’t matter politically by spring. It’s a confusing situation because it’s not readily clear what Trump wants from this entire fiasco. I get the $5 billion request, but he’s had multiple asks on the wall and immigration and backed down several times. The most prominent example being Paul Ryan’s offer to issue a tariff on certain goods coming to the US from Mexico that would have raised between $50-60 billion for border security. Trump would have gotten wall funding and could accurately claim Mexico was paying for it. He turned it down.
If you want an early crossroads moment in this administration where their capacity to work with Congress fell apart, I’d start right there. Because after that, Republicans didn’t know what Trump wanted or how he wanted it done, and all legislation got mired up. Pelosi faces a similar challenge, and she meets it with far less pleasant circumstances with an insurgent socialist front on her left and shutdown on her right. It’ll be an interesting tightrope for the speaker. We’ll probably learn how the next 18 months will go in the first three weeks of her new term.
This week I’m focusing on newly elected Senator Mitt Romney’s strange op-ed in the Washington Post. Links follow.
Where you can find me this week
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What was Mitt Romney thinking?
On New Years Day, Mitt Romney and his Senate staff decided to run an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled: “The president shapes the public character of the nation. Trump’s character falls short.”
And it’s not that Romney is wrong — I agree with him on several points — I’m just left asking: Why?
The two key passages are about midway through the piece:
It is not that all of the president’s policies have been misguided. He was right to align U.S. corporate taxes with those of global competitors, to strip out excessive regulations, to crack down on China’s unfair trade practices, to reform criminal justice and to appoint conservative judges. These are policies mainstream Republicans have promoted for years. But policies and appointments are only a part of a presidency.
To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Romney here. He’s saying he’s calling Trump’s actions as he sees them, balls and strikes like a baseball umpire. But there’s nothing new here either. The sudden departures of James Mattis and John Kelly, while bad I agree, don’t suddenly reveal anything new about Trump. Everything Romney says about Trump in this piece was equally true when Romney said it the first time in a 2016 speech.
It’s strange because Romney’s political instincts are as bad as ever. He didn’t have to write this piece at all. It’s not about 2020, and it does nothing for him politically. Ironically, Trump had the better comeback in a tweet:
Here we go with Mitt Romney, but so fast! Question will be, is he a Flake? I hope not. Would much prefer that Mitt focus on Border Security and so many other things where he can be helpful. I won big, and he didn’t. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!
Trump raises the specter of former Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who started backpedaling on conservative positions and caused all kinds of headaches for Mitch McConnell. By doing so, he’s wrily suggesting that Romney has to be a team player here — if he doesn’t, he’ll fail his state of Utah.
The entire Senate, especially on the Republican side, has had one plan when it comes to Trump: keep their heads down and focus on their work. Romney said in his piece he didn’t want to answer for every tweet Trump makes — but by writing the op-ed, he opens himself up to that very attack. People will now question what makes one tweet or press conference worth comment, but not another.
Politically, Romney wins very little. The best theory I’ve heard yet is that Romney is positioning himself as the leader of the GOP in the event of a Trump loss in 2020. But that doesn’t work in the long run because Romney has never been, in any way, the intellectual leader of conservatism or the Republican Party. Romney has sterling character, no doubt, but no one considers him an elder statesman in the party.
Ben Shapiro made some excellent points on the op-ed in National Review:
If not, the entire op-ed raises the question: What do you want us to do about it, senator? By declaring Trump unfit for his office, Romney immediately forces a choice: Should he back Trump in 2020, or challenge him? Should Republicans be pushed to choose between an incumbent president and a person of more character and consistent conservative conviction — and would a primary effort actually effectuate that choice? …
So, what’s Romney doing with his op-ed? Nothing useful. In fact, he’s doing something seriously counterproductive. If Senator Romney wants to sound off against Trump’s excesses and character flaws, he should by all means do so in response to Trump’s tweets or statements or actions. But by forcing a “Love Trump or Leave Trump” choice on Republicans, he’s actually doing the work of both the most ardent Trumpists and the most viciously antagonistic members of the Democratic party and the media.
And the ultimate answer is that Romney isn’t suggesting anything — he’s not even presenting a plan. And when it comes to voting, Romney will vote like a typical Republican on most issues. And if you’re looking in the Senate, things are mostly going Trump’s way.
Trump has poor character — that’s undoubtedly true. The question I have for Romney is why are you using gunpowder now, when no one asked you for this, and not just save your ammunition for later. As it is, Trump out-flanked Romney’s column politically in one 140-character tweet. And from the looks of it, Romney and his staff never saw that coming.
Romney’s tactics are also vastly different to that of Jonah Goldberg, who while on vacation got into an entertaining spat with Roger Kimball of The New Criterion. Goldberg’s whole response is worth the read, but I’ll quote the critical section from his argument:
Last, I should at least acknowledge that I have allowed Roger to move the goalposts. My argument was that Trump’s presidency will end poorly because character is destiny. Even if one were to credit Roger’s new, fairly Alinskyite definition of good character — the ends justify the means and therefore good character is defined by how well one achieves those ends — it wouldn’t nullify my point. Trump’s inability to hold onto cabinet secretaries of quality; his determination to shrink his political coalition; his refusal to do the minimum due diligence to understand and thereby explain his policy preferences; his incapacity to let insults, real or perceived, go unanswered; his relentless prevarication and insurmountable narcissism; his insistence on denigrating allies; his penchant for conspiracy theories and his unwavering pettiness: All of these things are reflections of his character, too. And they will have consequences for Trump, the GOP, the conservative movement, and the country. Roger can ignore or minimize these all he likes, but it will not persuade anyone who isn’t already a believer.
I often like to ask my AlwaysTrump friends, “What can the next Democratic president do that you won’t look like a hypocrite for criticizing?” No doubt there are some plausible policy answers to this. After all, Trump hasn’t pushed socialized medicine — at least not as president. But in terms of almost every other metric of the president’s role and responsibilities, Trump’s most unequivocal defenders are leaving themselves stranded on very small parcel of ground to stand upon once the Trump presidency is over. And their new attitude toward the issue of character barely leaves enough ground to stand on one foot.
Goldberg is also arguing that Trump’s lack of character is unfortunate for the overall direction of the country. But unlike Romney, who does a three-cheers for character in American history, Goldberg makes the case that character and integrity matter for the overall health of the country because distinct issues are at play.
And it doesn’t matter what type of leadership style you’re studying, from Proverbs in the Bible to the top business books on Amazon; they’d all say Goldberg is right. Poor character always has to answer for itself in the end. That’s a far more effective line of argument than Romney’s attempts at twisting a political pretzel.
Mitt Romney’s piece made very little sense politically, even if he raised some excellent points. If he’s going to try and be the elder statesman for the party, he’ll have to improve his political instincts. Because right now he has the timing and accuracy of Elizabeth Warren releasing a DNA test to claim she’s Native American.
Links of the week
Obscuring the Issue of Trump’s Character – Jonah Goldberg, National Review
GOP is Outraged at Mitt Romney for Saying Publicly What the GOP Says Privately – Erick Erickson, The Maven
My Time Shooting With the Liberal Gun Club: Some liberals love guns too – Stephen Gutowski, The Washington Free Beacon
Pro-Choice Myths Are Perpetuated by a New York Times Fetal-Personhood Story – Alexandra Desanctis, National Review
Women’s March in Mostly White City Canceled for Being Too White – Katherine Timpf, National Review
The Nash Equilibrium Minimum Wage Is Zero – David Sukoff, Intellectual Takeout
Castro’s Revolution on Its 60th Anniversary – Vincent Geloso, Intellectual Takeout
Louis C.K. — and his critics — are a plague on comedy – Abe Greenwald, The New York Post
The next step after the First Step Act: Purge the US criminal code – Rafael A. Mangual, The New York Post
A Response to Wilkinson about Socialism – Kevin D. Williamson, National Review
How to Talk So Trump Will Listen: A GOP Guide for Pelosi: A few Republicans have managed—really—to work successfully with the president. Here’s what the new speaker could learn from them. – Michael Warren, Politico Magazine
The Irrational Allergy to the Wall – Rich Lowry, Politico Magazine
American Dreams in a Chinese Takeout: The grueling nature of Chinese restaurant work in the U.S. has been well-documented, but the immigrants living that life understand the trade-offs they’ve made. They see America as a place they might build a life for themselves. The question is how to go about building that life. – Katie Salisbury, The Ringer
How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success: With “The Apprentice,” the TV producer mythologized Trump—then a floundering D-lister—as the ultimate titan, paving his way to the Presidency. – Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker
Satire piece of the week
Follower Of Joseph Smith Urges Nation To Reject Morally Flawed Leaders – The Babylon Bee
SALT LAKE CITY, UT—Mitt Romney, incoming senator for Utah and follower of Joseph Smith, lectured the nation in an op-ed Tuesday on the need to reject morally flawed leaders.
The man who has devoted his life to the teachings of a con artist encouraged the nation to examine its leaders to see whether they are worthy of our devotion and respect.
“A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect,” wrote the man who follows Joseph Smith, a false prophet, notorious polygamist, and scam artist. He pointed out that the president hasn’t shown himself to be honest or forthcoming in his dealings with opponents and other countries, while Joseph Smith’s own prophecies failed to come true over and over again, and while the Mormon Church continues to deceive its members by covering up its past.
Thanks for reading!