Well, that should fix everything. Mitt Romney on Thursday gave what amounted to a keynote address for the nascent #NeverTrump movement, calling Donald Trump a “fraud” and warning of the dire consequences for the Republican Party and the nation at large if he does win the nomination.
“His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University,” Romney said during a high-profile speech at the University of Utah. “He’s playing the members of the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat. His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president. And his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”
Romney’s been ramping up his anti-Trump rhetoric in recent weeks—ironically enough, leading the charge for the celebrity billionaire to release his tax returns—and Thursday’s speech was a clear attempt to galvanize the anybody-but-Trump wing of the Republican Party that, at long last, is no longer in complete denial about Trump’s chances of winning the nomination. (They are, however, still in denial about the fact that the Donald’s legions of fans aren’t storming the GOP castle as much as they are attacking from within its walls.) Still, Romney’s speech was largely a rehash of the criticism we’ve heard before—hitting him on his current posture and his policies, as well as his personal and business past—albeit in a very Mitt way. “Donald Trump tells us that he is very, very smart,” Romney said at one point. “I’m afraid that when it comes to foreign policy, he is very, very not smart.”
On paper, Romney’s criticism is a powerful act; here is the most recent GOP nominee trying to take down a man who is well on his way to becoming the next one. In reality, though, it’s likely to be too little, too late—and is more than a little hypocritical to boot. As Trump doesn’t hesitate to remind everyone, Romney went out of his way to seek his endorsement in 2012, well after the reality television star was beating the Birther drum. Romney was fine with Trump’s demagogy when the former Massachusetts governor thought it would help put him in the White House. It’s only now that the Donald is using it for his own political purposes that Romney is taking a stand. Undercutting Mitt’s anti-Trump pitch further is the fact that he still hasn’t endorsed anyone, a nondecision that my colleague Isaac Chotiner points out suggests Romney is leaving the door open to play white knight at a contested convention. In that way, he’s not unlike Trump’s 2016 rivals who have refused to sacrifice their own slim presidential prospects for the greater good of their party.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to dismiss Romney and his anti-Trump allies completely. Donald Trump is the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination, but he’s not the presumptive nominee just yet. He’s won 10 of the 15 GOP nominating contests so far, but he still only has about a quarter of the 1,237 delegates necessary to secure the nomination. With Florida and Ohio’s winner-take-all primaries less than two weeks away, though, it’s a now-or-never situation for those in the GOP establishment who so desperately want to defeat him.
Stopping Trump in Florida is the first step in a multistep plan to force a contested convention—a break-in-case-of-emergency option that Romney suggested is now the only one. “Given the current delegate selection process, that means that I’d vote for Marco Rubio in Florida and for John Kasich in Ohio, and for Ted Cruz or whoever has the best chance to beating Mr. Trump in a given state,” he said.
Romney isn’t acting alone. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus have pledged to stay neutral, but a growing number of GOP financiers and party strategists are working to stop Trump before the March 15 primary in Florida, where a Trump victory would be a humiliating defeat for Marco Rubio and the GOP establishment. According to the New York Times, groups like the Club for Growth and the America Future Fund plan to spend millions on attack ads in the state in the coming days. (Rubio’s super PAC is also expected to go for broke in his home state.)
Romney’s an imperfect messenger, but he’s not a horrible one. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News all carried portions of his speech live—something they do far more frequently with Trump’s campaign events than they do with those of his rivals. Of course, expect those same networks to have their cameras rolling this afternoon at Trump’s campaign rally in Maine, where he’s sure to offer a Trumpian rebuttal.