“Which Mitt Romney will we get?” was a question that has been asked by many political observers since the former governor and presidential candidate stood for a never-in-doubt senate campaign in Utah. The 2016 “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” Romney, or the 2012 and 2018 Romney that accepted the endorsement of then-business man and now president. A New Year’s Day Op-ed in The Washington Post suggests the new junior Senator from Utah is going with the former.
The Trump presidency made a deep descent in December. The departures of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, the appointment of senior persons of lesser experience, the abandonment of allies who fight beside us, and the president’s thoughtless claim that America has long been a “sucker” in world affairs all defined his presidency down.
It is well known that Donald Trump was not my choice for the Republican presidential nomination. After he became the nominee, I hoped his campaign would refrain from resentment and name-calling. It did not. When he won the election, I hoped he would rise to the occasion. His early appointments of Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, Nikki Haley, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, Kelly and Mattis were encouraging. But, on balance, his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions this month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.
The rest of the op-ed is variations on the theme of “I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state, and oppose those that are not.” Reaction was immediate and strong. The president’s most ardent supporters immediately derided Romney, with Trump 2020 Campaign manager Brad Pascale tweeting that Romney was “jealous”, and the president himself responding:
Here we go with Mitt Romney, but so fast! Question will be, is he a Flake? I hope not. Would much prefer that Mitt focus on Border Security and so many other things where he can be helpful. I won big, and he didn’t. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2019
In the long term it’s more likely that everyone will be unsatisfied here. Many of the folks praising Romney for “standing up to Trump” are the same people who insisted he was unfit to be president himself because of such things as his “binders full of women” comments and other flaws that seem downright quaint in the Trump era of political rhetoric. The first time Romney votes for anything the president supports he will once again be reviled by them. And vote for them he will, as he expressly lays out in the op-ed. If establishment republicanism of the previous age was made flesh to dwell among us, it would look a lot like Willard Mitt Romney. Senator Romney (R, UT) will be a reliable ally to Mitch McConnell on just about every issue and procedure the majority leader pursues. Romney still believes in the Republican party, for good or ill, and is not about to change now.
The president’s “I won big and he didn’t” resonates with the MAGA folks beyond just the president’s normal “winning” declaration. Romney’s perceived lack of fight, which many on the right saw as an inability or lack of desire to more forcefully challenge President Obama during the 2012 campaign, is part of the established lore on why President Trump triumphed over the field in 2016. There is truth in it, but pointing out that Trump “fights” also serves the dual purpose of excusing many of the exact issues Romney brought up first in his 2016 speech, and now again about Trump’s character. To the president and many of his most ardent supporters “win at all cost” justifies much, rendering moot the principles, detractions and objections of the losers. No need to debate the finer points when you won and they lost. Plus there is the continuing defense from some that any attack on Trump is impermissible, as it helps his opponents, articulated here by Mitt Romney’s niece, serving GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel:
POTUS is attacked and obstructed by the MSM media and Democrats 24/7. For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack @realdonaldtrump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and is disappointing and unproductive. https://t.co/ArhI7Bi7bo
— Ronna McDaniel (@GOPChairwoman) January 2, 2019
What we now have in this latest version of Trump v Romney is two men in whom it’s been established who and what they are. In Romney we have a throwback vestige to the Republican party of the time before Trump the disruptor came, in many ways as the reaction to that type of politics. The comparisons to Jeff Flake were immediate, even from the president himself, but that comparison isn’t accurate. Romney isn’t going anywhere, firmly seated for the next six years repping not only a deep red state, but also one with an electorate that is not particularly fond of the president. Trump pulled an anemic 45% out of Utah in 2016, while Hillary Rodham Clinton and Evan McMullin combined to get nearly 49%. That six-year term also means Romney will be in the Senate for the remainder of the Trump presidency, and beyond if he so chooses, with no real threat to him electorally. Romney will probably do very little legislatively to curb the president, but that might not be his and the Republican leadership’s plan anyway.
In a very real sense, Romney has one thing going for him that the president doesn’t, and has no ability to change: time. Either in 2 or 6 years, Donald J. Trump will no longer be president. While both his supporters and detractors center their universe on the President, and thus the media and most political observers follow suit, the real power brokers in Washington and elsewhere are planning ahead for what comes next. With a split congress and seemingly endless investigations coming in 2019 nothing of substance will be accomplished legislatively. Couple that with a mold-breaking 2020 election cycle having begun in earnest, the normal political playbook will be mostly worthless in the coming months. Without legislating or running for president, the question then is just what is Romney going to be doing with his free time?
The most useful part of watching what Romney does might be in using him as a barometer of what Republican leadership is doing independent of the president and the chaos that will be surrounding the administration. He would be the natural convergence and rally point of the “establishment” wing and also the anti-Trump folks, and can safely voice opinions and messages of dissent. If Romney is saying it, chances are good the party powers-that-be who eagerly await the day that Trump is no longer the face of the party are thinking it. They know there will be a fracturing of support as the Trump Presidency concludes either in 2020 or 2024, and they plan to reassert themselves at the first available opportunity.
But that is in the future. For today, Mitt Romney didn’t really say anything he didn’t say before, or surprise anyone, or break any new ground in criticizing the president on a moral and behavioral basis. There really wasn’t anything new here, and all the criticisms leveled have been written many times before by various people. But it’s a prominent republican, so that makes it useful to some. Others will find it useful to prove that the president’s own party is against him. In short, everyone will take from the Romney op-ed what they went into it already believing, and feed their version into the spinning news cycle to prove their preconceived point. At least the crazy spin cycle is consistently crazy, and 2019 starts right where 2018 left off.