Do Not Trust Mitt Romney for a Second
As Utah’s potential next senator, the former governor is being touted as a significant threat to Trump’s stranglehold on the GOP. His history suggests otherwise.
News broke yesterday that Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican senator from Utah and president pro tempore of the Senate, would be retiring at the end of his term, setting up a GOP primary to fill his seat in this November’s midterm elections. Normally, an 83-year-old Republican with a limited national profile retiring in a deep red state wouldn’t be significant news, even amid hesitant speculation of a retaliatory “blue wave” of Democratic pickups on the horizon and with the balance of power in the Senate shaved down to a razor-thin 51–49 margin after Alabama’s special election. But Hatch’s retirement is attracting attention because while he is perceived to be a loyal ally to President Donald Trump, his presumptive successor is perceived to be anything but.
That’s right; welcome Mitt Romney back to the big leagues, America! Assuming he wins, and that’s as safe an assumption as any in a world where nothing makes sense anymore, it would mark an impressive comeback on the national stage for the GOP elder. For a former state governor in his 70s with two failed presidential runs under his belt, landing comfortably in a Senate seat is a hell of a third act. If the #fakenews is to be believed, the prospect of a staunch ally being replaced by an erstwhile nemesis is one that has sent a chill down the President’s spine. Numerous outlets have reported that Trump has pleaded with Hatch not to retire, afraid of the threat that a potential Senator Romney could pose to his agenda and credibility in Congress. And with a Senate Republican caucus that oscillates between blind allegiance to and tortured resistance against Trump, where the loudest voices against him are those that won’t be running for reelection, there’s a sense that as a Trump critic with a fresh six-year term, Romney could shape the future of a post-Trump Republican Party, one that adheres to principled conservatism as opposed to the frantic twitterings of the Commander-in-Chief.
Don’t you believe it. Mitt Romney will not save the Republican Party’s soul from Donald Trump.
He’s the one who helped sell it in the first place.
Back in college, I liked to joke that in a world where Republican politicians became actors instead of the other way around and where Hollywood made good Fantastic Four movies, Mitt Romney would have made a phenomenal Reed Richards. He’s affable, wealthy, classically handsome, has a clear dedication to his family, and rocks the signature graying temples — it doesn’t hurt that his wife Ann Romney bears a passing resemblance to Sue Storm, too. And then the punchline: above all else, Romney should be the super-stretchy Mr. Fantastic because he doesn’t have a backbone.
At the time, it was a jab at his notorious status as a flip-flopper on major issues, a label that political rivals of all stripes would try to tag Romney with — some with a lot less acuity than others, as Rick Perry aptly demonstrated. But I bring it up now not to re-litigate an election that ended over five years ago, or to shovel more dirt onto the presidential aspirations of a man who’ll likely never run for the White House again. It’s to highlight the danger of relying on Romney to be a principled thorn in Trump’s side, or a safeguard against Trump’s influence on the rest of the party. He’s already demonstrated that he can’t be trusted to do so.
Rewind back to February 2012. LeBron James plays for the Miami Heat, the first Avengers movie hasn’t come out yet, Breaking Bad is still on the air, the eighth generation of video game consoles are still in development. Barack Obama is the president, Mitt Romney is the leading Republican nominee to unseat him in November, and most importantly, Donald Trump is nothing more than the billionaire host of a reality TV show.
Trump and his minions can try to rewrite history however they want by pointing fingers at their eternal boogeywoman Hillary Clinton, but it’s indisputable: if he wasn’t the birther movement’s tip of the spear, then he very much wanted to be, repeatedly appearing on television shows and citing apocryphal private investigators who “could not believe what they were finding.” And when President Obama finally caved and released his birth certificate in 2011, Trump took it upon himself to call a press conference touting his pride and happiness in his “important accomplishment.”
This is who Trump was in 2011. Strip away the money, the pageants, the gold, the TV show, and that’s all Trump brought to the table politically besides vague nativist rants: birtherism, and the legions prepared to believe it. He was the spokesperson for a movement designed to delegitimize America’s first black president under the guise of concern that the Constitution had been violated, and Romney knew it. And much like his predecessor John McCain, he had an opportunity to set the tone of his campaign by pushing back against the worst elements that it might attract. Unlike John McCain, he didn’t take it.
Instead, Romney courted Trump for a nomination. And he got it:
Over the course of six short minutes, Romney lavished praise upon Trump’s business acumen and bluntness, and expressed what an honor it was to have his endorsement. And even as Trump ratcheted up his buffoonery throughout the campaign, casting aspersions on Obama’s birth, education, and very identity as an American, Romney still couldn’t be bothered to reject or repudiate his antics until Election Day, when he lost to President Obama by the deliciously karmic margin of 51% to 47% in the popular vote. In a just universe, that should’ve been the end of the story for both of them.
Instead, Trump pulled a Thanos and decided that if he couldn’t steer a chosen candidate into the White House, he’d do it himself four years later. And as the crowded Republican primary whittled down to the general election contenders, with Trump looking closer to becoming the nominee with every passing day, in March 2016 someone finally had the guts to stand up and call out the outsider hijacking the Republican Party. Someone willing to call out Trump’s failed businesses, his greed, and his bigotry. Someone willing to call him for being a bully, a con man, and a misogynist. Someone willing to deliver a withering seventeen-minute screed stating in no uncertain terms that because of his ill-temperament, “trickle-down racism,” and half-baked policy proposals, Trump was fundamentally unfit to occupy the Oval Office, and begged his party to nominate any of the other men left standing.
Who was this mystery man?
Ouch. Et tu, Romne?
Now, intraparty spats or rivalries are nothing new in American politics. After all, the last two Democratic presidential nominees went from this to this in only eight years. But Romney’s speech was operating on another level of rhetorical viciousness; short of a Hamiltonian duel to the death or beating someone over the head with a cane on the Senate floor, it was about as close to scorched earth as you can get in modern American politics.
A cynic such as myself could say that such a speech was undercut by Romney’s praise of Trump four years earlier, despite Trump’s possession of those same loathsome qualities then that he decried now. A cynic such as myself could also say that such a speech was rather safe to deliver at the time, considering how heavily Hillary Clinton had been favored by prognosticators of all stripes to win the general election regardless of the GOP nominee’s identity. But either way, a speech as soul-searingly blistering as Romney’s made it clear; however long it might have taken the scales to fall from his eyes, he now saw Trump for what he was, and would do whatever it took to oppose him.
…for about eight months.
This scathing Romney vanished in November 2016, when Trump shocked the world by winning the general election and began to assemble his Cabinet. With the ripe fruit of Secretary of State being dangled in front of him, Romney suddenly couldn’t praise Trump enough, hastily reassembling a bridge out of the ashes to praise Trump’s “message of inclusion” and prophesying that America’s “best days are ahead of us.” Gone was “trickle down racism,” gone was the dimming of America’s light as the city on the hill. Gone was the acerbic criticism of the spring, and gone was the defender of principled conservatism. Romney wanted a ride on the Trump train, integrity be damned.
And as we know, he didn’t quite make it.
Romney reemerged as a prominent Trump critic nearly a year later, when amidst the hellscape that was 2017, the President of the United States of America provided rhetorical cover for white supremacists marching in Charlottesville. Once more, Willard Mitt Romney came riding over the horizon, sternly remonstrating the Donald to a round of applause and retweets. Once more, with a door back into the political arena, Romney was praised as an exemplar of what a leader of the Republican Party should be. And now, with a Senate seat for the taking, once more is Romney being hailed as a potential savior of party and country alike.
Which, if you’re a cynic, leads to one question: why?
Mitt Romney may not have created Donald Trump, but he certainly didn’t do anything to try and stop him back when he could in 2012. And after having apparently seen the light in 2016, he couldn’t be bothered to stand his ground after Trump was elected. Why is he now being touted as a champion of principled conservatism for what is nothing more than shameless opportunism? Why do people think he’s any more likely to stand up to Trump when it matters instead of obsequiously bending the knee like before? Why is it so impressive that he was able to condemn the unholy trinity of Neo-Nazis, Klansemen, and Confederate fetishists, simply because the President stumbled in doing so? Have our standards fallen so low?
Back when he believed he could harness the energy of Trump’s bigotry and those of his followers for his own purposes, Romney was all too happy to excuse it or wave it away, no matter who got hurt. It’s only after realizing Trump is as incompetent as he is inflammatory, that he is as much an obstacle to some traditional Republican goals as he is an asset to others, that there is no method to the madness, that Romney found the courage to stand against him.
If Romney’s history is any indication, it won’t last.
None of this is to suggest that to maintain any integrity as a Senator, Romney must buck GOP orthodoxy outright. As President Obama once said, elections have consequences, and it would be ludicrous to imagine the “severely conservative” Romney acting as a swing vote to protect the Affordable Care Act, reproductive rights, or DACA. Romney won’t block a conservative Supreme Court justice, be opposed to the broader deregulatory Republican agenda, or hold his vote hostage to extract simple concessions out of Trump, such as the release of his tax returns.
But when Trump assails the integrity of the press, will Romney speak up? When Trump continues to upend the international order, what will Romney say? When Trump threatens and mocks the most disadvantaged communities in the country, will Romney defend them? When Trump continues every ostentatiously ugly behavior that Romney so stridently decried two years ago, what will he do, if anything, to hold the president accountable and restore a semblance of dignity to the office he once hoped to hold? Forget his shifting positions on gun or abortion rights, on health care or climate change, on immigration or the capacity of Democratic voters to take responsibility for their own lives: Romney’s inability to take a stand, once and for all, on the kind of man he perceives Donald Trump to be may not disqualify him from being a Senator by any Constitutional metric. But it certainly disqualifies him from being the principled GOP reformer that so many are clamoring for.
From the moment Trump was sworn in, there has been a glaring vacancy for someone to be the standard bearer for an alternate vision of what conservatism or Republicanism would be when his time astride the party ended, however soon or far off that day may be. Someone to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric, to stop the institutional scapegoating of those lower on the societal totem pole, to demonstrate that the Republican Party is as talented at running the government as they are at complaining about it.
Mitt Romney is not that person. He never has been. And if, as conventional political wisdom dictates, he becomes the next Senator from the great state of Utah, he almost certainly will not be.
Nothing’s impossible, of course. But call it a hunch.
Shall we make it a bet, Mitt? What say you to a round $10,000?