The unlikely spectacle of Mitt Romney sallying forth this month as a cross between St. George the Dragon Slayer and Dudley Do-Right — rather intrepidly crusading to save the Republican Party from a fate worse than defeat, and America from a fate worse than Hillary — is, like so much else these days, evidence of Donald Trump’s limitless sorcery.
Trump — or anyway, fear of Trump — can even make Mitt Romney interesting.
It is hard, by this time, not to see Romney and his co-conspirators in the Dump Trump movement as overmatched. But it’s also hard not to cheer them on, if only to keep the story going. For political journalists and junkies, the 2016 campaign has long since taken on a car-wreck-like fascination — and it just keeps growing more irresistibly appalling.
There is something refreshingly hard-boiled about the tactics being used against Trump. Romney campaigned for Marco Rubio in Florida, for John Kasich in Ohio and for Ted Cruz (and pointedly against Kasich) in Utah. Nowhere did he fully “endorse” anybody.
Romney laid out the unsentimental strategy in his anti-Trump declaration on March 3: “Given the current delegate selection process, I would vote for ... whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state.”
The aim in that approach has not been to amass a nominating majority of delegates for an alternative to Trump. The aim has simply been to deny Trump delegates wherever possible — which under the various winner-take-all systems governing delegate selection in remaining states requires backing the strongest “non-Trump” in each jurisdiction.
Gradually, more and more GOP leaders are holding their noses and lining up behind Cruz. But it remains a purely negative, blocking action to prevent Trump’s (or anyone’s) nomination by a 1,237-delegate majority on the Republican National Convention’s first ballot, when most delegates will be required to support the choice of primary or caucus voters in their home states. On subsequent ballots, if such there are, delegates would be freed to vote as they chose — and as bargains, bullying and blandishments might move them.
Somewhere during such an “open convention” melee, Romney and other establishment GOP leaders would presumably anoint a more, well, conventional candidate who could cobble together majority support and snatch the nomination away from the Trump. Might that be Cruz? Kasich? A resurrected Jeb Bush? Speaker of the House Paul Ryan? Romney himself? No doubt back rooms (however smoke-free) echo with speculations.
Trump and his hordes, of course, howl that such machinations would be unfair, un-American, an overthrowing of the people’s will. Yet through most of U.S. history, contested conventions were the norm, at least in the sense that the gatherings began without any candidate having the nomination sown up — there was at least a little haggling to be done. As recently as 1984, Walter Mondale had to round up the last few delegate votes he needed on the convention floor.
Between 1868 and 1952, according to a Pew Research Center report, about two-thirds of all national conventions ended in multiple ballots (though seldom anywhere close to the record 103 ballots the Democrats needed to nominate John W. Davis in 1924). Abraham Lincoln, nearly everybody’s (even Trump’s) idea of a model president, needed three ballots in 1860 to “snatch” his nomination away from William Seward, the clear favorite entering the Republican convention that year.
Still, it’s perfectly true that fashionable wisdom since the middle of the last century has embraced the ideal of voter supremacy, having grown impatient with the checks and balances and indirectness of democracy in America. Central to this ideal is the view that primary voters, rather than party “bosses,” should control access to ballots.
A revisionist school of thought, called “political realism” — taking note of today’s singular polarization, extremism and gridlock — asks whether we may have not so much reformed as deformed our political system by disempowering political party insiders who have a vested interest in cutting deals and splitting differences. Trump, propelled by celebrity star power and coarse tribal ideology, may be our full comeuppance for romanticizing voters’ instincts.
But a convention hijacking in this voters-know-best era surely could be ruinous for the GOP in a way routine floor fights weren’t in earlier times. That leaves one wondering what Romney and his fellow poobahs are thinking.
If they cared only about party victory, rallying behind Trump might make the most sense. He seems to have major problems in a general election matchup, but he is a hard-to-predict, easy-to-underestimate political phenomenon. And would any Republican have a better shot after the party tore itself apart?
If the Dump Trump movement presses on, it would seem to suggest that many establishment Republicans are prepared to accept disunity and defeat in 2016 if necessary to prevent a Trump takeover. His stylistic indignity and offenses against long-standing party principles on assertive foreign policy, free trade, small government, the centrality of social issues and more may simply be too much. And perhaps he seems uncontrollable.
In any event, if GOP big shots, for whatever reasons, truly have decided that’s it’s better to lose to the Democrats than to Trump, it might reflect a long-term and country-first perspective we haven’t seen in years.
Still more Trump sorcery.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.