Tone Is All That Separates Mitt Romney and Donald Trump
Back in 2012, a lot of us spent a lot of time being scared of Mitt Romney. Between his binders full of women, disdain for the moocher class, and alliance with Paul Ryan (we'll get to him later), he represented everything that I'd come to despise about American politics. It was the first election I was legally able to vote in, and I made sure to stay in line even after the reliably-blue California had already been called for Obama, just so I could bury the final nail in his coffin. Everyone behind me in line left upon seeing the news, so I ended up being the last person to vote at my polling place. It felt good to vote against him, even if it was more symbolic than consequential.
These days, it seems comical on a surface level that we were ever afraid of someone like Mitt Romney. The entire Trump experience has re-calibrated expectations for all politicians, even those firmly in the rear-view mirror. In contrast to Trump, he comes off as measured and thoughtful, at the very least. Heck, even Dubya is regarded by some as a sympathetic maligned painter instead of a war criminal who oversaw the great recession. Among the general dysfunction and semi-daily tweet-storms that exude from the current administration, those guys seem tame. We'd surely rather have them in charge, right?
There's been a lot of retrospective myth-making about how Trump took control of the Republican party, 'hijacked' it even. According to such theorists, Trump leveraged an extreme faction of the base against the protests of the mainstream politicians, dragging them kicking and screaming as far right as you can go. That's absurd. A potential President Romney would have done the same things as Trump would have done (maybe not a wall, but you get the point). You know how we know that? Because Romney said it himself just six months ago! And it wasn't even to try and curry favor with Trump in advance of his Senate race, since the Mormon's favorite son was widely expected to win in a landslide. By the way, the bit about that wall – Romney even said he'd support that just today, hours after writing a scathing (an ultimately empty) op-ed in WaPo! The chances that he'd come up with a border wall by himself if he were President are unlikely, but even the notion that he'd be in favor of one is indicative of where his priorities lie.
Perhaps with a different person at the helm, we wouldn't wake up every day in fear that a major world event had transpired at 3AM due to a misfired tweet, or fret about the damage being done to the United States' standing as a beacon of democracy. But many of the same things would have been done, just more quietly. It's the sentiment that hangs over a potential Mike Pence presidency should Trump be brought to heel by one of this many investigations – Pence is just as extreme as Trump, but automatically treated with a greater level of acceptance and respect across the aisle because he's, well, not Trump.
And while Trump chose Pence in part because he leaned well to the right, it's not just Pence or the loons from the Freedom Caucus who are effectively the same as Trump. We know that 'snowballs-are-definitive-evidence-against-global-warming' Jim Inhofe are lost causes. Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch, stalwarts of the Republican Senate establishment for many years, have an A-score on their voting record when it comes to allying with Trump. Lindsay Graham, seen as recently as a few months ago as a potential torchbearer of John McCain's maverick legacy, votes in line with Trump 90% of the time and has undergone a public meltdown since McCain's passing. On that note, even McCain voted with Trump 83% of the time! Even the Republican that votes the least with Trump – Jon Kyl – is at 71%.
There are still those Republicans who, if you don't look too hard, seem like they genuinely want to be heroes. Guys like Jeff Flake (81%) and Marco Rubio (94%) are the type to look in the mirror every day and believe that they are sincere and just in their cause, but can never bring themselves to instigate meaningful change. Flake even managed to halfheartedly demand an FBI investigation into Brett Kavanaugh so he could feel better about himself, only to vote to confirm him barely a week later. Rubio managed to avoid endorsing Trump for months, only to turn tail and record a video endorsement for the RNC so he wouldn't have to face the hostile crowd that screamed at Ted Cruz.
(For context, only four Democrats – Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, and Doug Jones – vote with Trump more than 50% of the time, with only Manchin exceeding 60%. Those least in line with Trump are Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, and Kristen Gillibrand, all below 16%.)
Even poor blue-eyed "policy wonk" Paul Ryan (who I wrote about a few months ago in Paul Ryan, the American Success Story) is often described as having succumbed to Trump's demands, but even that's not true. There's hardly a single policy position that Ryan has that Trump doesn't share. Ryan's proposed healthcare plan during his vice presidential run was somewhat similar to (although definitively shittier than) what Obamacare ended up being in its final form, which is also similar to the slightly shittier replacement healthcare plans that were jammed through in 2017. Ryan's dream was corporate tax cuts (an accomplishment so large for him that he literally quit his job right after they were passed), the kind that Trump supported because he personally profited from them. The only time Ryan broke with Trump was for the 2018 farm bill back in May, a bill which he changed his mind on during a revote barely a month later!
Of course, voting records aren't all-encompassing, but you can put any of these guys in charge – Romney, Ryan, whoever – and we'd still be stuck with Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, vast deregulation, and huge corporate tax cuts. Despite Trump's unconventional (for a Republican) stances on trade and economic protectionism, he still enjoys support from a solid faction of Republicans on a lot of these issues. Over half of all Republicans (53%) didn't like NAFTA, compared to 68% of Trump-Republicans (those who have a favorable view of the president). The same percentage of Republicans wanted to stay in the Iran deal, as did a comparable 46% of Trump-Republicans. Remember that Mitch McConnell ignored hundreds of years of history and precedent to refuse Barack Obama a Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Merrick Garland, causing irreparable damage to that norm. Sound familiar?
Donald Trump was an entirely normal candidate for the Republican party in 2016, and will undoubtedly survive a primary challenge in 2020 for that exact reason. He's something of a mega-hybrid of all their notable names – the racism of Steve King, mixed with the incompetence of Lamar Alexander, the power-hungriness of McConnell, the bluntness of McCain, and the dishonesty of one Mitt Romney. Yeah, Romney even lied as obnoxiously (if not as frequently) as Trump did; he once said that "sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China" – a statement that was crowned Politifact's Lie of the Year in 2012. The difference between Trump and the rest of his party is singular in nature – it's not the message, just how the message is delivered.
Temperament. Tone. Rhetoric. That’s it. These are things that don't *really* matter in the end – that Trump called African countries 'shitholes' was good for an impassioned Cory Booker tirade, but didn't have staying power for even a couple news cycles. Emboldening white nationalists with his "fine people on many sides" comment didn't inspire the white nationalists to do anything that they wouldn't have already done (and that was after they had already killed a protestor in the Charlottesville rallies). A different Republican president may not have derided his opponents to the extent of threatening to 'lock her up', but they would have said things that were mean in a more nuanced way (Romney's infamous 47% comment characterized those who support Obama as people "who pay no income tax"). A different Republican president may not have overseen a revolving door of officials and cabinet members, but they'd have had people who were just as bad for a longer period of time (see: Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton, and Ari Fleischer). And a different Republican president may not have been so combative when it came to things like the media, but would have been just as reckless being combative with entire countries (excluding Syria, the States' current war count is six, four of which were started during Bush).
So let's not pretend that Donald Trump isn't just a regular Republican with some personality quirks. Mitt Romney certainly doesn't – it might be the only thing he's actually sure about.
Statistics courtesy of The Washington Post and FiveThirtyEight, current as of January 3, 2019.