NOTE: This article first ran in USA Today Jan. 10, 2018
The news that Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is retiring after 42 years, combined with the likelihood that Mitt Romney is going to run for, and presumably win, his seat, was wildly cheered by the “Never Trump” contingent of the Republican Party. We’ll see if that elation is premature. But boy was it welcomed.
Things haven’t been going well for the NT crowd. They cheered when Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) came out with a book denouncing what Trump has done to the party. But that quickly led to a rapid decline in his favorable numbers back home, a drop so bad that he was forced to abandon his re-election bid. Victory, Trump. They loved when Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and John “Thumbs Down” McCain killed the repeal/replace effort aimed at Obamacare, but their voices were much more muted during the tax overhaul debate. Victory, Trump.
And remember Lindsey Graham? You shouldn’t. The South Carolina Republican, famous for once calling Trump a “kook” and “crazy” and “unfit for office,” has now become inexplicably a Trump Whisperer, his golf outings with the president morphing him into a leading cheerleader. What in the world is that about?
But there’s no question that replacing Hatch with Romney would give Republicans dismayed with Trump something to cheer about. Hatch, once known for working across the aisle to get things done, has become a leading Trump sycophant, especially in the aftermath of the tax vote. “You’re one heck of a leader,” gushed the 83-year old Hatch, first elected to the Senate when Gerald Ford was in the White House. He suggested at the signing ceremony that Trump could become one of the greatest presidents ever. Ever!
It would be a stretch to imagine Mitt Romney ever coming to that conclusion. Romney, the unsuccessful 2012 GOP nominee against President Obama – he “choked,” Trump said – has never hid his contempt for the man in the White House. He famously warned about a Trump presidency in 2016, saying he is “very, very not smart.” He “lacks the temperament” to be president. He’s a “con man, a fake.” A “phony, a fraud.”
Strong stuff, right? The beginning of the effort that would deny him the nomination, right?
Hardly. Romney’s speech, delivered in March of 2016, went nowhere. Trump easily became the nominee and was elected president that November. The last time we saw Romney, he was auditioning to become Trump’s secretary of state.
And let’s be honest. We’ve seen Romney do his shapeshifting thing as needed over the years. A moderate on abortion, he became a pro-life warrior during his 2012 presidential bid. He worked to put together a historic health care system as governor of Massachusetts, but disavowed much of it when he ran for president. Rick Perry, one of his rivals for the nomination that year, called Romney a “conservative of convenience.”
The fact is – and Romney knows it — no Republican is going to survive politically by becoming a Trump critic, and it’s silly to suggest that’s the role Romney will play in the Senate. Think of the Republicans who tried. They’ve been singled out and mocked and humiliated by Trump himself, and have been marginalized by their opponents back home. Getting high fives from the mainstream media is not the way to win a GOP primary, as Jeff Flake sadly came to learn. And Republicans are not going to change until Trump completely implodes – or until Robert Mueller presents a case.
Still, Mitt Romney in the Senate would be a good thing. A worthy replacement of Hatch … and someone who has shown, for the most part, the decency and courage to be honest to himself, to his party, and to his country. This is the right time for him.