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If you’re Donald Trump this week, are you more upset by Steve Bannon’s comments to Michael Wolff, in which he basically accused the president’s family of treason, or the looming specter of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah?

Well, we know the answer to that, given the importance Trump places on loyalty. As others have noted, Wednesday’s official White House statement on Bannon – in which the administration said that the man who had been in charge of its political strategy as recently as August had “lost his mind” – sounded like something that had been dictated by Trump himself. Wolff’s book, which much of the political world has quickly assumed is something like eighty percent true, clearly has the president spooked. And even if you believe Bannon’s abilities are commonly overrated, as I do, it’s still a problem is that he’s gone full Kurtz and disappeared upriver, if only because he’s one of only a few people who can credibly attack Trump from the right.

Then again, Bannon may never recover from going to war with Trump like this. He’s forced fans of both to pick a side, and the vast majority is sure to go with the president. Plus, for all the attention he gets, Bannon does not have anywhere near the kind of influence people like Rush Limbaugh or Matt Drudge have among conservatives. He can cause trouble for Trump, but only so much.

So perhaps the more interesting development of the past few days, at least in the long term, is the political resurrection of Mitt Romney. Should he run and win Utah’s open Senate seat, Romney will likely find himself the leader of the #NeverTrump right, a faction that has been riven by infighting lately. If all goes well, he could even position himself as a sort of alternate reality Republican president, a greybeard of considerable influence who can help alter the sagging trajectory of conservatism.

If all that sounds overly optimistic, that’s because it probably is. The #NeverTrump crowd counts many pundits and intellectuals as members, but it doesn’t really have much by way of grassroots support, as Republican voters have shown time and again that they really do like the president. It also lacks much by way of representation among elected officials, who are wary of opening themselves up to primary challenges by criticizing the president.

But if he’s elected this year, Romney wouldn’t have to worry about a primary challenge until 2024. He would be representing a deep-red state that also is rather wary of Trump. And it’s almost inconceivable that he still harbors any kind of national aspirations. In other words, he would be free to knock the president as much as he wants, and in the process lay out a working way forward for a post-Trump GOP.

The liberal gripe about Romney running for Senate is that while he might talk tough about Trump, he’ll still vote in support of the president’s agenda. Fair enough. But there’s some value in just having a senator, free from the burden of further political ambitions and secure in his perch, being able to regularly articulate a vision of conservatism that’s not shackled to Trump’s ego and ill-temper. It would be good for the country if a Republican were to prove that you don’t need to ape the president, and can indeed call out his excesses, while still getting elected to Congress.

Romney is well suited to remind Republicans in Congress that conservatives are supposed to believe in political norms and the idea that character matters. The trickier question is whether he can move beyond the tut-tutting and shrillness that characterizes a lot of #NeverTrump punditry. Republican politicians who criticize Trump tend to engage in a kind of tone policing that is often more irritatingly self-serving than useful. If Romney is to be a successful counterweight to Trump, he’s going to have to do better than that. 

Bannon’s career maybe in full eclipse, but he’s correct that the Republican Party needs to become more populist and nationalistic if it’s to be successful in the future. The hard part is squaring that basic insight with an actual policy agenda that retains Trump’s voters, appeals to Americans beyond his base, and ditches the white identity politics that helps undergird his support.

It’s extremely unlikely that Romney is the guy who can figure out the winning formula that mixes the lessons of 2016 with a practical, workable conservative political vision. He’s a brilliant manager, not a philosopher, or even much of a political thinker.

Still, if this country is going to have a functioning, viable center-right party in the future, conservatives need to have a serious debate about a way forward. Trump’s cult of personality will eventually die out, and when it does, conservatives will need something better to replace it.

Romney – a decent man in a party short on decency — can be an important and sober part of that discussion should he choose to. It’s too much to expect that he can save the right from itself. But if he plays it right, he can be have real value to both his country and his party going forward. 

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