Donald Trump

Mitt Romney Says that Presidential Character Matters. But Policy Is Far More Important.

Donald Trump is not the personification of America.


John Angelillo/TNS/Newscom

"To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation," wrote Mitt Romney, the newly elected Republican senator from Utah, in yesterday's Washington Post. "A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect….[P]residential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent's shortfall has been most glaring."

As The Daily Beast notes, the predictable response from the president's supporters was that "all of Trumpworld united under the banner of a single cause: stuffing incoming Senator Mitt Romney into a locker." That included Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), who told the media on a call that the president didn't "deserve…to have a new senator…attacking his character."

As Katherine Mangu-Ward, Matt Welch, Peter Suderman, and I discussed in yesterday's Reason Podcast, Romney is certainly accurate in his depiction of President Trump's demeanor. The former real estate developer is a bully, a loudmouth, and a liar (or at the very least a bullshit artist). But Romney's take is seriously off in at least two ways that matter far more than whatever the presidential Twitter feed offers up at any given moment.

First, the presidency doesn't shape "the public character of the nation." We're not living in some Arthurian legend where a wounded fisher king or a healthy leader is a manifestation of the body politic. Trump's juvenile behavior has conceivably hurt America's standing abroad. Romney notes that just 16 percent of people in Germany, Britain, France, Canada and Sweden believe the president would "do the right thing in world affairs." Before Trump took office, that figure stood at 84 percent. But it's not exactly clear whether that's because, I don't know, he called a porn star horseface or because he's constantly bitching about Europe paying more for its own defense (or a million other policy proclamations). At any rate, do most Americans form their character based on who is sitting in the White House? I don't think so.

Second, Romney scants policy questions in his attack on Trump. Near the end of his piece, he rolls out a series of bromides that are so generic and uninspired they remind us why he lost the 2012 presidential race against an unpopular incumbent.

We must repair failings in our politics at home. That project begins, of course, with the highest office once again acting to inspire and unite us. It includes political parties promoting policies that strengthen us rather than promote tribalism by exploiting fear and resentment. Our leaders must defend our vital institutions despite their inevitable failings: a free press, the rule of law, strong churches, and responsible corporations and unions.

We must repair our fiscal foundation, setting a course to a balanced budget. We must attract the best talent to America's service and the best innovators to America's economy.

The link above goes to a column by George Will calling for a balanced budget amendment, which is nice. But it's also the case that Romney studiously avoided mentioning any significant cuts he would make when he was running for president. (At one point, he went out on a limb and said he'd axe the National Endowment for the Humanities.) He talked a game of "cut, cap, and balance" but made exceptions for military spending, Medicare, and Social Security, which is to say, most of the budget. He was consistently vague, except when he promised to cut taxes. In his Post op-ed, he says that he will "speak out against significant statements or actions" that are, among other things, "divisive" and "anti-immigrant." Romney's gesture toward inclusive immigration policy is nice, but he was persistently anti-immigrant in 2012. If he wants to prove he's changed those stripes, there's a long list of policies and priorities he can start pushing back on, including plans to intensify workplace crackdowns and reduce the number of H-1B visas (for highly trained workers in short supply). Yet he told CNN yesterday that he "would vote for the border wall." Go figure.

I'd argue that the country is suffering more from a lack of policy leadership than from a surfeit of ill-tempered tweets.