The Coming Clash of the GOP Titans
Remember Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and 2012 Republican presidential candidate who lost decisively to Barack Obama by roughly five million votes? The man who, after getting whipped in that campaign, disappeared for a while in a sort of self-imposed exile to collect his thoughts and start a new life as a full-time grandfather and part-time philanthropist?
It turns out that Romney the career politician is not content to sit on the couch in one of his estates for the rest of his life. Last week, in what will be his fifth political campaign in 23 years, Romney announced his bid to be Utah’s next United States senator. And being the gentleman he is, he is apparently planning to run a gallant campaign in tune with his latest state’s history and reputation. “On Utah’s Capitol Hill, people treat one another with respect,” he remarked in his short campaign video. His message: Americans need to start respecting each other again like they did in the good ole days. The subtext: a Senator Mitt Romney will reintroduce the civility, inclusion, tolerance, and open-mindedness that has been lost in today’s political discourse.
This has nothing to do with President Donald Trump and the unending stream of controversy that surrounds him; it has everything to do with working hard for the good folks of Utah. That, at least, is the message Romney is selling this time around. Asked by The Salt Lake Tribune whether he aims to be a lonely anti-Trump bulwark in the Senate, Romney brushed off the question, instead stressing his common ground with the White House on issues such as tax cuts, conservative jurists, and cutting oversized government bureaucracies.
Romney says he’s at heart a small-government fiscal conservative like many of Trump’s advisors, so a Senator Romney would presumably be an administration ally on Capitol Hill. He supported the tax cuts last year just like every mainstream Republican in the country; is a tough guy on illegal immigration, having proposed an E-Verify system and self-deportation during his presidential campaign; would very likely support whatever military interventions Trump orders in the future (Romney is, after all, firmly within the internationalist camp of the GOP); and, barring an indictment from Robert Mueller for obstruction of justice, will probably aim to keep his head down on all things Russia. Numbers will matter, too, though: Romney would be a powerful lawmaker in his own right, but there is only so much a single senator can do—particularly when the rest of the Senate Republican conference is more or less solidly behind the administration.
As far as Romney engaging in another national duel with Trump, Romney says we shouldn’t count on it. “[I]f he [Trump] says something or tweets something or there’s some issue that I find that I can’t agree with, I’ll point that out,” Romney told the Tribune. “He’s not going to change at his age. I’m not going to change, either. So I’ll call them like I see them.”
Those assurances aside, it is almost impossible to picture Trump as genuinely pleased with the idea of Mitt Romney becoming a fixture in Washington. Despite the president’s endorsement of Romney on Twitter—and Romney’s acceptance of the endorsement—it has been publicly reported that Trump is not exactly enamored with one of his chief GOP rivals serving in the upper chamber. There’s a reason the president was so effusive in his praise of 83-year-old Senator Orrin Hatch last year, and it’s not just because the longtime Utah Republican supported Trump’s tax cuts. If Hatch had decided to run for an eighth term, Trump’s ideal outcome, Romney would very likely have been pushed aside.
Trump’s lobbying campaign obviously didn’t work. Romney is now a Senate candidate and virtually guaranteed to win his race in November. Never Trumpers in the Republican Party—or what’s left of them—are hoping and perhaps even anticipating that Romney will replace John McCain as the moral voice of the GOP and the beating heart of the opposition to America First. Columnists for the National Review are giddy at the prospect: one contributor to the magazine, Kevin D. Williamson, wrote an open letter to Romney last year in which he basically begged him to represent what the GOP used to be before Trump barreled into Washington.
Right now the Never Trumpers seem destined to be disappointed, as Romney prepares to ally with Trump on at least some aspects of policy. Never Trumpers can, however, count on one thing: eventually, a situation will arise where Romney and Trump are at loggerheads. It may happen when the president says something untoward during an interview. It may occur after an inevitable Monday morning tweetstorm or a hypothetical indictment by Mueller. Once it does happen, Republicans will be looking at Romney to respond. And Trump, loyalty-obsessed ego he is, may not like what the freshman senator has to say.
Mitt Romney may be representing Utah in the Senate, but he will still be a participant in Trump’s Washington. How long the two of them can peacefully coexist is another matter entirely.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.