In his Thursday speech, he presented the establishment’s moral argument, attacking Trump’s character, decision-making ability, and personal history. “Dishonesty,” Romney said, “is Trump’s hallmark.” To wit: Trump said he was against the Iraq War when he wasn’t and said he saw Muslims cheering the September 11 terrorist attacks when he didn’t. “He imagined it,” Romney continued. “His is not the temperament of a stable, thoughtful leader. His imagination must not be married to real power.” And on top of all those brutal character flaws, he’s unelectable against Hillary Clinton. In Romney’s words, “a Trump nomination enables her victory.”
Romney is in just the right position to make the moral case against Trump. He’s well respected, his public image is squeaky clean, and, perhaps most importantly, he operates outside the Washington bubble. But where Romney went wrong Thursday was in presenting his criticism of Trump’s electability as equal to his criticism of Trump’s fitness to lead. By tying the concerning facts of Trump’s campaign to prognostications of his nomination and ultimate failure, Romney suggested that a victory for Republicans in November is just as important as being morally right. And Romney was more than happy to lay out the stakes: “A person so untrustworthy and dishonest as Hillary Clinton must not become president.” Yet his criticisms will likely reinforce a belief among Trump’s followers: that the Republican establishment doesn’t know what it takes to win elections and is even less equipped to predict what will happen to Trump.
In an election as wild as this one, predicting the future is a fool’s errand, making Romney’s argument that Trump is certain to lose to Clinton all the more misguided. And he should know better: It wasn’t long ago that Romney himself downplayed Trump’s potential and said he wouldn’t be the nominee. Romney told The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, James Bennet, last fall that mainstream-conservative candidates in the race—Chris Christie, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, and perhaps even Carly Fiorina—would lead the GOP to a win. Now, just two of those candidates are left—barely.
Until this week, Romney’s public comments on the race have been largely restricted to Twitter, where he has become part of the life cycle of campaign controversies: Controversy erupts; candidates, campaigns, and media throw barbs; and then @MittRomney weighs in as a voice of reason. In recent days, Romney has become more of an agitator. In his speech, as on social media, he has hit Trump for his waffling on the KKK, an off-the-record discussion Trump had with The New York Times, and his unreleased tax returns. Trump, Romney suggests, is hiding something by not making those tax documents and his interview public. If Trump doesn’t make them public, as Romney has urged, “you will have all the proof you need to know that Donald Trump is a phony,” he said Thursday.