President of the fight club.

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What Romney Really Said About Trump

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Mitt Romney gave a forceful speech denouncing Donald Trump today. He hit each of Trump’s major areas of weakness: His incoherence on policy and deviation from conservative orthodoxy; his lack of appropriate temperament and trustworthiness; and his business record.

On the surface, his points were excellent. Beyond that, Romney was delivering messages for three difference audiences.

For Republican party actors, Romney was saying: The race isn’t over yet. Resistance is not futile. It’s a message badly needed after Super Tuesday coverage suggesting (or, from what I heard on CNN, outright stating) that Trump had wrapped up the nomination. Romney was telling them: This is going to be a prolonged fight, and the opposition isn’t going to give up easily.

He was also giving high-visibility Republicans cover to say nasty things about Trump even though those quotations might be used in the general election to sink Republicans if Trump ends up as the party's nominee. Romney struck first. That makes it easier for other politicians to follow. 

For Republican voters, especially those who don’t pay much attention, Romney had a simple message: This guy isn’t one of us. The message won’t sway Trump’s strongest supporters, or people who never liked Romney to begin with. And those who already follow politics closely already knew it, whether or not they support Trump.

But don't assume this knowledge is universal. To many voters, Trump may seem just a regular (albeit flamboyant) Republican. Pundits, in particular, don't sufficiently appreciate how little many voters know.

For the press, Romney had two messages. One was what he was telling party actors: The fight for the Republican nomination is just getting started. Second, he reminded scandal-loving reporters that Trump is a rich target, giving them a road map featuring tax returns, Trump University and more.

A lot of liberals argued (at least in my Twitter feed) that Romney’s attacks were undermined by his responsibility in creating Trump by accepting his endorsement in 2012. Others said it makes no sense for Romney to go after Trump on policy when the other Republican candidates, all of whom Romney finds acceptable, have endorsed positions similar to his. 

Nonsense. Whatever Romney’s responsibility was for making Trump seem credible, the choice they have now is to endorse him or to resist him. Republicans can't wait until their other candidates adopt sensible solutions on every issue. Calling out Trump as particularly unsuited for office -- for being, as Romney said, a “phony” and a “fraud” -- is the proper thing to do for anyone who believes that to be the case.

One speech isn’t going to swing the nomination. But Romney did what he could. The question now will be how many join him and the others resisting Trump and how effective they will be. 

  1. This doesn't mean voters are stupid. They just have other things to do in the period between elections. And that's a smart use of time for those who don't intend to get more involved in politics. Take the voters in Kansas, which has caucuses this weekend. Anyone there who carefully studied all 17 formally announced Republican presidential candidates last year was wasting his or her time on the 13 contenders who didn’t make it this far.


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Jonathan Bernstein at

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