The Romney Dilemma

Among the many decisions a newly-elected president must make, an especially difficult one is how far to go in outreach to political adversaries when making high-level appointments.

On the plus side, arguing for boldness in such appointments, are at least three considerations: the value of appearing generous and open-minded; the potential for more support from voters and political players who, while otherwise opposing the new president, favor the unexpected pick; and the value of such an appointee’s major differences with the president in broadening his perspective on relevant issues.

On the minus side, arguing against the nomination of a political adversary (or a recent one), are at least three other points: the need to seem confident enough to choose the most coherent team possible; the need to avoid antagonizing one’s political base; and the need for major appointees to be committed to the president’s purposes, especially the most politically challenging of these.

Donald Trump’s announced nominees as of this writing—November 30—seem like pretty logical ones. With few, if any, exceptions, they are qualified and well-respected people. Some, indeed probably most, of the appointments are notably gratifying to conservatives and other Trump supporters. At least two of the president-elect’s choices, Nikki Haley for United Nations ambassador and Elaine Chao for transportation secretary, indicate he has bowed slightly toward the Republican establishment, whether that was his main intent or not. The same may also be true in the case of Betsy DeVos, his pick for the Department of Education, who has the additional advantage of strong association with certain “right-wing” policies (maybe enough to cause a serious confirmation battle). These appointees are highly acceptable to the GOP establishment and probably to “Never Trump” conservative intellectuals too. As women, two of whom are women of color their presence among Trump’s high officialdom makes it easier for him to fill his other major positions—many of them more ideologically significant, and more central to his campaign themes—with less fear of the all-white or all-male “optic” that has been politically inadvisable for half a century.

These appointments also make it somewhat easier for Trump to get away with two choices that are, ideologically and stylistically, more controversial: Senator Jeff Sessions, as Attorney General, and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, as national security advisor. (The national security post doesn’t require Senate confirmation, but it’s certainly high-profile enough that Flynn’s appointment is likely to cause political headaches, eventually or sooner.) Of these two, and perhaps among all eventual Trump choices, it’s Sessions whom I expect Senate Democrats to focus their hostility on. “Racism,” of which Mr. Sessions is not guilty, has become a habitually dishonest and paranoid accusation, but few people in politics, other than conservatives, can be expected to evaluate such accusations fairly anymore. In addition, having a fearless ideological conservative in charge of the Justice Department will probably be essential in both the fight for immigration enforcement and the struggle against politically-correct abuses of civil rights laws.

Mitt Romney would have little trouble winning confirmation as secretary of state, but, otherwise, he is the hardest case among the other names prominently mentioned. Should the former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate be nominated, the anger among both a substantial segment of Trump voters and key Trump associates, including Newt Gingrich and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, would leave permanent burn marks on the incoming president’s reputation. Even total success as secretary of state—which is doubtful for several reasons, including Mr. Romney’s almost complete inexperience in foreign policy—would not cause those marks to fade. His appointment to such a major position would always tend to look, even in that best-case eventuality, like crude, not just slight, opportunism. Need I remind readers that Romney bashed Trump at the height of the primary season as: “a phony, a fraud … playing members of the American public for suckers … ” and guilty of “bullying … greed … misogyny … absurd third-grade theatrics”? That’s reason enough to be certain of many Trump supporters’ hostile reaction to a Romney appointment. It is also reason enough why this choice would make Trump look embarrassingly willing to forgive what his “brand” says he (of all people) shouldn’t: strong, and very public, personal insults from a leading figure in his own party.

It is not enough, however, to prove that Romney would work at cross-purposes to Trump’s agenda. That is something only Trump—in consultation with people who know Romney and foreign policy well—can determine. If they make a deeply-informed decision that he would probably be loyal, only two of the three negatives I have cited as arguing against this kind of appointment would apply.

Trump would then be left with three pluses for a Romney appointment, to set against those two minuses: looking open-minded, etc.; winning points from moderates and perhaps liberals—which would be quite useful in what’s sure to be a difficult presidency; and benefiting from the perspective of a person so different from himself. Of these three favorables, the last is the most speculative. Trump should think especially hard about it: about the value of Romney’s foreseeable types of advice and ideas, including his plausible ability to make otherwise-difficult foreign relationships work better for a controversial president. I have no strong opinion on the question. But in considering the possibility of Romney as secretary of state, that should be the tie-breaker, either way.


David B. Frisk is a Resident Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization ( A Ph.D. in political science, he is the author of If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement
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