On Thursday morning, Mitt Romney tried to save the Republican Party by making fun of Trump Steaks. He called the current GOP presidential front-runner a "phony" who was giving America nothing but lousy hats and "promises worthless as a degree from Trump University." Romney begged voters, who probably weren’t watching him speak to students in Utah in the middle of the workday, to pick whichever candidate looked like he could beat Trump in any state in order to force a brokered convention.
Romney says Trump is bullying the rest of the GOP into oblivion. The fact that Trump supporters agree with Romney — and think this is a good thing — seems to have eluded him. To really stop Trump, it probably would have been much more effective if Romney went up onstage today and said that he thought Trump was the best person to follow in his footsteps, the closest thing we will ever have to a Mitt clone. But he didn’t, thus ensuring his status as a footnote to the Republican primary — the Ned Ryerson of the 2016 cycle. He keeps reappearing, offering to save us, but yet we keep living through the same weird election over and over again anyway.
In January 2015, Romney said, again, that he wasn’t going to run for president this cycle. "I believe that one of our next-generation Republican leaders, one that may not be as well known as I am today, one who has not taken their message across the country, one that is just getting started, may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democratic nominee," he said. "In fact, I expect and hope that to be the case."
Things didn’t turn out as he hoped, which means the past year has been punctuated by periodic whispers about whether one day Romney would return to save his party from an intense mid-life crisis. (Instead of buying a red convertible, it went with an orange motormouth.) Every few months over the past year, stories would pop up announcing that Romney was aghast at Trump, and that his friends were all pressuring him to enter the race. Romney himself wondered about the limits of nostalgia for still-recent history, telling the Washington Post that he asked himself, "Am I loved? Am I written off? Am I despised? What does the Republican base think about me?"
In the end, Romney kept his ever-hinted-at presidential campaign holstered, which means we’ll never know what would have happened if yet another person vying for Establishment approval entered the race, splitting up the pie of anti-Trump votes further. On the other hand, Romney got to remain the guy who could have always saved the Republican Party — making that dream eternally true by making it so it couldn’t be proved wrong. And then, he became a Twitter troll, sending off Statler and Waldorf–worthy missives explaining his disbelief at what a post-Romney Republican Party looked like.
Many of Romney’s insults did nothing but emphasize how he was never going to be the person who stopped Trump — unless everyone is OK with a "takes one to know one" anti-Trump offense.
It’s harder to take all of Romney’s anger seriously when you realize he accepted Trump’s endorsement only four years ago. (Trump’s relationship to the GOP has always been context-sensitive, and it’s important to remember that no one minded him when they thought they needed him.) "Being in Donald Trump's magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight,” Romney said before the 2012 Nevada caucus, adding, "There are some things that you just can't imagine happening in your life. This is one of them.”
Then, Trump said Romney was “smart” and was “not going to continue to allow bad things to happen to this country." On Thursday, responding to Romney’s speech, Trump said Romney had begged for the endorsement. “I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees,’ and he would have dropped to his knees,” he said. “Mitt is a failed candidate — he failed. He failed horribly.” It’s amazing how bald politics can temporarily conjure the greatest friendships and rivalries (paging Chris Christie).
Another thing Romney probably didn’t imagine happening? That his life in the four years since the endorsement would entail disappearing from politics, and only emerging to complain that this same man was threatening to follow in his footsteps, and that someone should stop him.
It’s not clear who is supposed to do the stopping in this scenario, though — if anything, Romney showed that the Republican Party is beyond saving. I mean, the most recent GOP presidential candidate just called the current front-runner "very, very not smart!" (Sen. John McCain, another former presidential nominee, said that he shares Romney’s concerns.) Romney said that people should start strategically voting in order to maybe force a brokered convention! He basically told the GOP that it is drunk and should go home, think about its life choices, and try again in a few months. Romney also didn’t endorse any of the remaining candidates — meaning that the state of the race has not changed one iota.
"Watch how he responds to my speech today," Romney said today. "Will he talk about our policy differences or will he attack me with every imaginable low-road insult? This may tell you what you need to know about his temperament, his stability, and his suitability to be president." Unfortunately for Romney, plenty of people see Trump’s ersatz political skills as a feature, not a bug. And when Trump called Romney a chicken today, his supporters cheered.
Trump voters have already heard all the complaints about their guy aired today; what they haven’t heard are compelling reasons for why one of the other remaining candidates would be a better alternative. Romney said it himself in January when he announced that he would never announce a presidential bid — he wasn’t going to be the one to save the future, but maybe one of those next-generation GOP leaders could. But who? Republican leaders have proved very adept at being anti-Trump and anti-Clinton and anti-Obama, but until they figure out what they’re for, this puzzle will remain unsolved — and the election that they’re so worried about losing will just keep creeping closer.