The Defects in Dennis Prager’s Romney Piece

Senator Mitt Romney (left); conservative commentator Dennis Prager (right)

It’s been a week since Mitt Romney’s Washington Post op-ed was published, in which the incoming senator and former Republican presidential nominee qualified his belief the President Trump’s poor character is detrimental to American leadership. And unsurprisingly, pro-Trump media-conservatives are still pretty fired up over the perceived betrayal.

In a new column entitled “Mitt Romney Fails Again”, Dennis Prager describes Romney as “foolish,” and calls his op-ed “intellectually and morally shallow.” Notably, Prager offers no explanation of why he believes the piece was shallow in those departments, nor does he challenge any of Romney’s arguments (a common theme among those defending Trump on this matter). He does, however, throw out a long list of rhetorical questions. Each begins with “Does [Romney] believe attacking Trump is more important than…” and ends with a political or cultural topic. Most are related to some liberal atrocity.

This is a frequent response among many pro-Trumpers whenever people on the right criticize our president: Why are you going after Trump when the left is doing all of this bad stuff?

The obvious answer — to those not immersed in a partisan political tribe — is that one can recognize and work to address a whole host of legitimate problems, while simultaneously believing that an absence of character and integrity at the executive level of our government is detrimental to effectively dealing with those problems. Not to mention detrimental to society and our influence abroad.

As another conservative commentator, Guy Benson, said in a recent piece, “If a duly-elected Republican has concerns about the leader of the party, he or she is absolutely free, if not duty-bound, to air them.”

But Prager, by his own reasoning, seems to believe that loyalty to the leader of the Republican party should take precedence above all else. Otherwise, he would have written this week’s column about one of the topics he wanted Romney to write about. Right?

Anyway, what makes Prager’s piece remarkable is that he suggests Romney’s voiced dissent may be symptomatic of “character defects.” Yes, he actually used that term. And in his opening argument in defense of that thesis, he included this remarkable disclaimer:

“While we have every reason to assume Mitt Romney is personally honest and faithful in marriage, a public figure’s character is far more than his or her personal honesty and marital fidelity. Plenty of honest men and women and plenty of faithful husbands and wives have helped ruin societies.”

It’s pretty interesting to hear someone like Prager, who many in the conservative movement have long revered as a moral leader, divide the concept of character into two separate contexts. Distinguishing between personal character and public-figure character seems rather contrived, but for the sake of a political argument, it certainly provides a convenient (and creative) mechanism for minimizing the importance of traditionally admirable traits like honesty and faithfulness — traits that President Trump clearly doesn’t share.

But let’s get back to Romney’s alleged character defects.

Prager claims that Romney’s public criticism exhibits a lack of courage:

“In today’s environment, it takes no courage to attack Donald Trump, especially in the Washington Post. Sen. Romney is now the darling of the elites of this country. He will be showered with praise by the elite newspapers and all the news networks (except Fox). He will be invited to give talks at universities throughout the country. He will be feted in Europe. And no one will scream obscenities at him when he dines in Washington, D.C., restaurants.”

This is disingenuous to say the least. While it may take no courage for Democrats and liberals to publicly criticize President Trump, it has been a far riskier proposition, over the past two and a half years, for Republicans and conservatives to do it. This has especially been the case for Republican politicians whose political base is very supportive of the president, and conservatives in the media — many who’ve lost their radio shows and spots on Fox News for daring to speak out against the party leader.

Also, this notion of Romney as a liberal darling is just silly. Any “new found respect” he currently has from the left will vanish the moment he sides with Trump and his fellow Republicans on key legislation. Romney knows this. Prager knows this. We all know it. So let’s shelve this ridiculousness about the senator being embraced by liberal universities and Europeans.

The second character defect that Prager attributes to Romney is pettiness:

“It now seems very hard to deny that Romney resents Trump for doing what he failed to do: win the presidency.”

Could this be true? It’s certainly possible. It’s also possible that Romney believes everything he wrote in his op-ed, and felt it important, for the sake of the direction of the country, to air those concerns. And since Prager did not challenge any point Romney made in the op-ed, and even said that he has “every reason to assume” that Romney is an honest man, why is he inclined to attribute Romney’s motivations to pettiness rather than a love for his country?

Romney’s third character defect, according to Prager: lack of conviction:

“Does anyone reading this column know what Mitt Romney stands for aside from winning elections? Can one reader name one strong conviction Mitt Romney holds? I can’t. He appears to be essentially conviction- and ideology-free.”

While it’s undeniable that Romney’s political stances on multiple issues have changed over time, he has been running on essentially the same positions for at least the last 12 years, including in his successful Senate bid in Utah. He reiterated some of those positions in his op-ed.

Trump, of course, has had far more dramatic (and much more recent) position swings. Prager addresses this in his piece:

“When Donald Trump sought the Republican presidential nomination, I was convinced he had no ideology. And I could not identify any convictions. I therefore opposed his nomination. But I vigorously supported his campaign for president and hoped my original assessment was wrong. Lo and behold, Trump turns out to have the most solid conservative convictions of almost any Republican politician since Ronald Reagan — and an almost preternatural amount of courage to put them into practice.”

Of course, Prager’s conclusion is highly debatable and highly selective. One can point to Trump taking direction on Supreme Court nominees from conservative groups during the Republican primary, and identify something other than conviction and ideology. The same goes for Trump signing a tax reform bill put together by the Republican Congress. And if you ignore almost everything else, from the trade war to the size of our deficits to his threats against the 1st Amendment (like many on the Trump-right are clearly happy to do), it’s quite a bit easier to toss out a “solid conservative convictions” narrative.

Still, if Prager contends that he was wrong about a rhetorical chameleon like Trump, whose governing skills he now claims to find ideologically sound, why wouldn’t he afford the same consideration to a far more consistent politician who speaks much more glowingly of conservatism, and has just taken his first public office in over a decade?

Oh, that’s right. It’s because the guy dared to criticize Donald Trump. And at this point in the history of the Republican party, that’s the worst character defect someone could possibly have.