May 19th, 2019


Lib dreams, conservative clarity

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published Jan. 30, 2018

Lib dreams, conservative clarity

In this era, when the inexplicable is inevitable, the inscrutable is inconspicuous and the unprecedented is unavoidable, some characteristics of the age still possess the power to astonish. Today we examine two of them, one for liberals, one for conservatives.

Together they tell us that we are in a period of profound and multiple transitions, from an age we might describe as linear -- if one thing happens, then it follows that a specific next thing succeeds it -- to a world where the physics of politics are so altered, so warped, that parallel lines might meet. One of these unexpected developments has been conveyed in a whisper, the other in a shout, but taken as totems of an era they may help explain this particular, perplexing political moment.

The first, in a whisper: The liberals' dream that invests its hopes in Mitt Romney, whom they once pilloried as an out-of-touch plutocrat more suited to private equity than to public life, but now see as a potential savior from a second Trump term in the White House.

With no clear Democratic presidential front-runner, the liberal hope is that the former Massachusetts governor first seeks the Senate seat from Utah being relinquished by Orrin G. Hatch and then uses that as a base for a 2020 GOP primary challenge to Trump.

Romney and Trump both took a close second in the Iowa caucuses in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Both then went on to win the New Hampshire primary by comfortable margins.

To many Never Trumpers, and particularly to liberals, Romney now is enjoying a pleasant second wind. Many in the Romney camp -- it still exists, though some of its members peeled off, presumably temporarily, to Gov. John Kasich of Ohio two years ago -- contend Romney is the only Republican who can take on Trump. They believe, moreover, that a Romney insurgency can be effective only if he is the sole challenger to the president. Their view: Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz should wait until 2024, when Romney, at 77, would be unlikely to seek a second term.

Romney is regarded as an overwhelming favorite in a state where he is still considered a hero for salvaging the Winter Olympics in 2002 -- memories that will be rekindled as the winter games are played at Pyeongchang next month, concluding 18 days before the state filing deadline for the race. Presuming that he wins that contest in November, Romney will be in the nearly unique position -- the only analog might be Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, who entered the race four days after the New Hampshire primary -- of holding back before plunging into the race for the White House.

"All he'd have to do is to be Mitt Romney," said one political operative with close ties to Romney. "He'd be a fully formed candidate from Day One."

Warning to liberals: Yes, independents can participate in the New Hampshire primary and might be motivated to request a Republican ballot to injure Trump by enhancing the Romney vote. But polls generally show strong GOP support for the president; the latest Gallup soundings show Trump losing 6 percentage points among Republicans in a week but still giving him an approval rating of 81 percent. In addition, it is exceedingly unlikely that the Trump rebels who powered the billionaire's drive to the White House would support another wealthy candidate who possesses none of the populist impulses that are second nature to the president.

The second surprise element, expressed in a shout: A president who attacks the Democrats fiercely, who nominated a strict constructionist to the Supreme Court and won his confirmation, who has used executive powers to undermine Obamacare, and who pressed for and signed a dramatic cut in taxes, nonetheless retains the abiding distrust of conservatives.

This phenomenon rests in part with presidential style and comportment. Many conservatives, who talk of radical political change but who dress, speak and think in traditional forms, have a fixed view of their movement: Conservative leaders should look like William F. Buckley Jr. or William Kristol, and if they must have a populist argot, it is expressed in the lilting, optimistic tone of Ronald Reagan.

There are, to be sure, new conservatives -- Freedom Caucus conservatives have a different view of the practice of politics -- but the traditional brand recoils at the thought of Trump in the Oval Office Reagan once occupied, is horrified at his relations with women, and is confounded by his inability to express a coherent governing philosophy besides the conviction that Democrats are bums.

In this context, the most damaging book to be published in this period is not Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury," but David Frum's "Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic."

In that volume, Frum, known for contributing the phrase "axis of evil" to George W. Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, indicts Trump for presiding over a White House that is "a mess of careless slobs" and warns:

"The thing to fear from the Trump presidency is not the bold overthrow of the Constitution, but the stealthy paralysis of governance; not the open defiance of law, but an accumulating subversion of norms; not the deployment of state power to intimidate dissidents, but the incitement of private violence to radicalize supporters."

That said, the conservative Heritage Foundation last week praised the Trump White House, which addresses the critique from the right much the way Bill Clinton's staff answered its critics: What exactly about peace and prosperity do you object to?

Before 2018 is out, we may discover whether the Trump stock market surge continues and whether peace prevails; Americans of all persuasions can only hope both are in the offing. But also looming is a vital debate about the nature of conservatism in the Trump, and post-Trump, era -- and some clarity about the role Mitt Romney might play in the Senate if he gets that far, and in national politics if he transforms his skepticism about the president into a challenge to the president. For then, whispers might become shouts.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.