Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Picture: REUTERS
Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Picture: REUTERS

Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s 2012 nominee for president, laid down a marker this week on his way to being sworn in as the next senator from Utah. In an article for the Washington Post, he lamented the “deep descent” of Donald Trump’s presidency and promised to “speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions”.

Romney’s interjection is unlikely to have much direct effect on the president — it’s hard to say what could — but with luck it might set a much-needed example for the new senator’s colleagues in US Congress.

Romney’s complaints aren’t the first. Now and then, Republicans of conscience — Senators Bob Corker, Jeff Flake and John McCain come to mind — have objected to Trump’s degraded rhetoric and hapless administration. Sadly, McCain is gone. The efforts of Corker and Flake faltered because both were soon to leave the Senate and neither mustered a sustained critique of Trumpism, much less a viable conservative alternative to it.

Many in Washington, including the president, dismissed Romney’s article instantly. They might be right: Romney opposed Trump ferociously during the primaries of 2016, then seemed to warm to him as jobs in the administration began to be discussed. He accepted Trump’s endorsement in his 2018 Senate race in Utah.

One is entitled to ask how sincere his new disgust with the president really is. But if he means it, and is willing to fight to restore minimum standards of ethical and competent government, he could provide a pole around which other Republicans might rally.

Reviving a responsible Republican politics will be anything but easy. Romney, though, looks suited to the task. His personal morality is not in question, he has the benefit of six years in office before re-election, and Republicans in Utah have proved less eager than most to condone Trump’s countless outrages.

To be sure, opinion in the party as a whole will matter most. More revelations of wrongdoing are likely to emerge from Democratic oversight in the House of Representatives and from the investigations of special counsel Robert Mueller and other law-enforcement agencies.

If, as this dismal story unfolds, Republican voters continue to rally to their calamitous president, so will many and perhaps most Republican senators. That’s politics. Yet, despite everything, a leader who can help Republicans rediscover the values they used to stand for might make a difference. Romney should keep up the effort.

Bloomberg