Rick Bowmer/AP

Will Mitt Romney’s Anti-Trump Pitch Work?

The former presidential candidate paints the front-runner as indecent, but he may not have advanced the establishment’s cause very much.

Just when you thought Mitt Romney was out, the Republican Party pulled him back in.

Nearly four years after losing the 2012 election and assuming the role of party elder, Romney offered a detailed indictment Thursday of Republican front-runner Donald Trump. Romney called out Trump as having neither the temperament nor the smarts to be the nominee and accused Trump of manipulating Americans’ anger about the state of the country for ignoble ends. But in promoting no single alternative to the front-runner—who he says is destined to lose—Romney offered little more than a sermon to the Republican choir. 

“If we make the right choices, America’s future will be even better than our past and better than our present,” Romney said in his measured way. But “if we make improvident choices,” if Republicans choose Trump as the nominee, “the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.”  

Romney’s address at the University of Utah gave voice to the establishment alarm over the mogul’s potential nomination. What started as sheer denial that Trump would find success morphed into pitched anxiety as he began winning states. After Trump swept seven on Super Tuesday, that anxiety reached full-blown panic. Enter Mitt Romney.

In his Thursday speech, he presented the establishment’s moral argument, attacking Trump’s character, decision-making ability, and personal history. “Dishonesty,” Romney said, “is Trump’s hallmark.” To wit: Trump said he was against the Iraq War when he wasn’t and said he saw Muslims cheering the September 11 terrorist attacks when he didn’t. “He imagined it,” Romney continued. “His is not the temperament of a stable, thoughtful leader. His imagination must not be married to real power.” And on top of all those brutal character flaws, he’s unelectable against Hillary Clinton. In Romney’s words, “a Trump nomination enables her victory.”

Romney is in just the right position to make the moral case against Trump. He’s well respected, his public image is squeaky clean, and, perhaps most importantly, he operates outside the Washington bubble. But where Romney went wrong Thursday was in presenting his criticism of Trump’s electability as equal to his criticism of Trump’s fitness to lead. By tying the concerning facts of Trump’s campaign to prognostications of his nomination and ultimate failure, Romney suggested that a victory for Republicans in November is just as important as being morally right. And Romney was more than happy to lay out the stakes: “A person so untrustworthy and dishonest as Hillary Clinton must not become president.” Yet his criticisms will likely reinforce a belief among Trump’s followers: that the Republican establishment doesn’t know what it takes to win elections and is even less equipped to predict what will happen to Trump.

In an election as wild as this one, predicting the future is a fool’s errand, making Romney’s argument that Trump is certain to lose to Clinton all the more misguided. And he should know better: It wasn’t long ago that Romney himself downplayed Trump’s potential and said he wouldn’t be the nominee. Romney told The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, James Bennet, last fall that mainstream-conservative candidates in the race—Chris Christie, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, and perhaps even Carly Fiorina—would lead the GOP to a win. Now, just two of those candidates are left—barely.

Until this week, Romney’s public comments on the race have been largely restricted to Twitter, where he has become part of the life cycle of campaign controversies: Controversy erupts; candidates, campaigns, and media throw barbs; and then @MittRomney weighs in as a voice of reason. In recent days, Romney has become more of an agitator. In his speech, as on social media, he has hit Trump for his waffling on the KKK, an off-the-record discussion Trump had with The New York Times, and his unreleased tax returns. Trump, Romney suggests, is hiding something by not making those tax documents and his interview public. If Trump doesn’t make them public, as Romney has urged, “you will have all the proof you need to know that Donald Trump is a phony,” he said Thursday.

His public admonitions of Trump fueled speculation that Romney himself would run, including from Senator Orrin Hatch, who on Wednesday told CNN, “There’s a possibility” Romney would jump in “if the convention is locked up.” But on Thursday, drawing boos from the audience, Romney said he had no such plans. Instead, he praised all three non-Trump candidates in the race and seemingly backed a convention showdown. “If the other candidates can find common ground, I believe we can nominate a person who can win the general election and who will represent the values and policies of conservatism,” Romney said. “Given the current delegate-selection process, this means that I would vote for Marco Rubio in Florida, for 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.” According to a CNN report Thursday afternoon, Romney’s advisers are looking into a plan to “lock” the convention.

As Romney has repeatedly hit Trump, Trump has hit back, on Twitter and in public statements. Trump’s offensive against the planned Romney speech kicked off Wednesday night and continued unabated throughout the day Thursday. Trump worked a few different angles against Romney: that Trump himself is bringing more Americans into the Republican fold than ever before, that Romney happily took Trump’s endorsement during his own presidential race, and that Romney is “[n]ot a good messenger” for “telling Republicans how to get elected.” “He was going against a president that should have been beaten,” Trump said on NBC’s Today Show Thursday morning, referring to Romney’s 2012 campaign. “The problem is nobody came out to vote for Mitt Romney. And I’m talking about Republicans.”

Romney probably should not have envisioned Trump as the nominee or presumed he would lose to Clinton once he was. Trump can easily argue that he’ll be victorious, no matter what Romney believes. After all, Trump has exceeded expectations at every turn throughout the primary. In his own way, by straying from his more powerful moral narrative, Romney gave Trump and his supporters an out: They can criticize Romney’s prediction, and ignore his larger, ethical case against Trump.