Donald Trump took over the campaign on Tuesday in trademark fashion, turning what Mitt Romney clearly hoped would be a quiet joint fundraiser that day into a cacophony of birther theories and ensuing pushback.
Republican pundits reacted with the expected level of horror as Trump bounced from interviews to Twitter and back, growing more outrageous at every turn.
“That was a big steaming plate of shit spaghetti Trump just deposited on CNN for his supposed friend Romney,” former Bush speechwriter David Frum tweeted after Trump sparred at length with CNN host Wolf Blitzer over the president’s origins. Longtime McCain adviser Mark McKinnon said Trump undermined Romney’s brand and made him look like “an out-of-touch rich guy without any real core, which means he’ll associate with anyone if he thinks it will further his ambition.”
An unaligned Republican strategist, Liz Mair, fretted to TPM that without an intervention from Romney, Trump’s election tour was probably just getting started.
“My bigger concern is not positive reinforcement for the birthers, but rather positive reinforcement for a guy who loves the spotlight and probably will come out and crap all over Romney just to get attention for himself in a couple months,” she said.
All of this begs the question of why Romney, known for his lockstep discipline, is sticking with the most half-cocked and distracting surrogate possible.
For one thing, the Romney camp likely doesn’t share the belief that the story is as damaging as establishment Republicans are portraying it. Trump is catnip for cable news, but Romney’s behavior suggests he’s counting on the media to move on to shinier objects once the fundraiser is over and a new development takes over the cycle. Both campaigns have seen plenty of one-day blow ups since the general election began, none of which seem to have had any major impact on their standing. Romney has kept his head down on the issue all week, refraining from criticizing Trump but offering his own affirmation that Obama’s birth certificate is valid.
Romney has been loathe to pick fights with the right as he continues to consolidate support from conservatives suspicious of his late-life conversion to their cause. He never condemned Rush Limbaugh for his Sandra Fluke screed. After supporter Ted Nugent’s violent rhetoric prompted concern from the Secret Service, the Romney campaign mostly kept quiet except for a general plea for civility across party lines. The same month, Romney also refused to go after far-right social conservatives even as they hounded openly gay spokesman Ric Grenell until he resigned his position with the campaign.
In the case of Trump, there are additional considerations for Romney. For one thing, Trump is helping the campaign raise millions of dollars and potentially committing even more of his own personal fortune to the election thanks to post-Citizens United campaign finance laws.
But more importantly, Trump could be infinitely more dangerous as a spurned Romney supporter than as a troublesome surrogate. Trump may be the butt of cable news jokes, but polls have consistently shown him to be the most dangerous potential third-party candidate, with a large base of sympathizers on the right. Even if he doesn’t run, the prospect of an angry Trump on cable news blasting the Republican nominee as a traitor to the cause is an indignity that Romney wants to avoid.
Romney took a calculated risk in initially embracing Trump — his birther crusade certainly did not come out of nowhere; he has been beating that drum for more than a year, well before he endorsed Romney ahead of the Nevada caucus.
A longtime backer of Trump’s presidential ambitions, political consultant Roger Stone, believes Romney made his own bed, given Trump’s outspoken views.
“As the Romney folks are learning, Donald Trump can’t be ‘handled,’” Stone, who now supports Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, told TPM. “He is his own man and he speaks his mind.”
As for the downside of sticking by Trump, Democrats see the relationship as a particularly juicy target that helps reinforce their campaign message on a number of different levels. A video by the Obama campaign Tuesday morning and subsequent press released painted Romney as cowardly, contrasting his silence in the face of Trump’s theories with John McCain’s rebuke of supporters at events who went too far in their attacks on Obama. It’s convenient ammunition for the Obama campaign as it begins its effort to paint Romney as a far-right Republican beholden to the party’s most radical elements.
“If Mitt Romney lacks the backbone to stand up to a charlatan like Donald Trump because he’s so concerned about lining his campaign’s pockets, what does that say about the kind of president he would be?” deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said in a statement.
Democratic group American Bridge put out a video titled, “The Only Difference Between Trump & Romney? The Hair,” looking to portray Romney and Trump as two ultra-wealthy peas in a pod, both of whom enjoy firing people.
Trump, for his part, couldn’t have done more to make Romney look like a weak nominee. At times he seemed to outright dare Romney to either take his side or try and stop him, tweeting that Republicans risked losing the election if they tried to “disavow the place of birth movement” and telling the Huffington Post’s Jon Ward that Romney had never told him to lay off the birther stuff.
At the very least, Trump ensured that the story Romney had hoped would lead Wednesday was buried under an avalanche of birther headlines: With a victory in Texas’s primary Tuesday night, Romney officially clinched his party’s nomination.