Here comes Mitt Romney to rescue the ailing Republican Party from the sinister Donald J. Trump. At an address Thursday at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, Romney told us that he is:
- Against Trump
- For Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and John Kasich
The knock on Romney's speech already is that it is a perfect microcosm of the Republicans' problem this cycle. We know they don't like Trump. But you can't just vote against Trump. You have to vote for someone. That was a coordination problem at the beginning of the race, and party leaders did nothing to help voters solve it.
But wait. Let's give Romney (and the other Republicans who are also part of this effort) some credit. The headline here is not that Romney called Trump a "phony." It should be what Romney thinks his party should do now.
Some are saying he has a longer-term strategy. He's trying to remind people that he is an option, which the party could turn to in a brokered convention. Even if it's not Romney, someone could still beat Trump at a brokered convention.
Now, I am the biggest fan of the idea of a brokered convention (because fun!), but it's a long shot. For it to happen, two other things need to happen first. And Romney's address could actually help make at least the first one happen.
First, you need to keep Trump from getting an outright majority of the delegates
That means changing the strategy of those voting against Trump in coming primaries. Before any voting began, the Republicans' best shot was to coalesce around a single candidate. If they had, Republican voters might well have followed their lead, as they often have in the past.
But that didn't happen, and it's just too late now. Trump has built on his early plurality success in New Hampshire and other states, and the united votes of all the other candidates in the race may not be enough to overtake him. There is a danger that the party will just come to accept Trump, and if they do that, it's all over.
So the strategy has to be to split the delegates among different candidates. The not-Trump vote in Florida is maybe Marco Rubio, but in Ohio it is definitely John Kasich. In January, if you were against Trump you wanted Kasich out of the race. Now you want him to stay in.
Romney's speech explicitly laid out that strategy, albeit briefly:
Given the current delegate selection process, that means that I'd vote for Marco Rubio in Florida, John Kasich in Ohio, and for Ted Cruz, or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump, in a given state.
That's step one.
Second, you need to get people to warm to the idea of a brokered convention
This is actually a big deal. The actual convention institutions allow for the convention to choose someone who is not the delegate leader, and that's totally legal and legitimate. But most people don't see it that way.
If Republicans outmaneuver Trump in Cleveland, it will be called anti-democratic. I am not sure how democratic a system of sequential primaries in a multi-candidate race actually is, especially if no one receives a majority.
A party that tries to see through their perversities might well be more democratic, but that's a tough sell. The decision will be criticized. (That's especially true if the party has to do some shenanigans with its newly created Rule 40, which might let Trump win on the first ballot even if he doesn't have an outright majority.)
By keeping the fight alive, Romney lets people continue to speculate on how to keep Trump under 50 percent, and on the prospects of a brokered convention. We have a little more than four months to get used to the idea. It's time for Republicans to start talking about it.
Romney didn't raise the notion of a brokered convention at all. It's a slow build, but if the party wants to do this, it needs to start that conversation.
I think Romney could have made this strategy more explicit, but perhaps that's for surrogates. What Romney is doing is keeping the party from accepting Trump, which is the most urgent part of this plan.
Is it too little and too late? Almost certainly. But it's not entirely crazy.