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What Does Mitt Romney Really Want?

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President-elect Donald Trump gives the thumbs-up as Mitt Romney leaves Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster, N.J., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Carolyn Kaster)
Carolyn Kaster/AP

Since failing to unseat U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy nearly a quarter-century ago, Mitt Romney has made no move toward running for a legislative office. Why would he? He’s the CEO type; the man in charge, in business, the Olympics, as Massachusetts Governor, and—very nearly—as President.

So why is he reportedly planning to run for Senate in Utah this year, at age 70, not long after a reported battle with prostate cancer?

That question has been the source of plenty of speculation, bordering on conspiracy theories, since the sudden news last week that U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah will not seek re-election.

Romney, some said, had somehow forced Hatch to step aside for him, in service of a grand plan of action in opposition to President Donald Trump.

He plans to lead a rejuvenated "Never Trump" resistance under the Capitol dome, they opine. The man who famously, in his own telling at least, rescued the failing Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, must have decided that he alone can revive and lead the opposition to the President. Indeed, “he could even position himself as a sort of alternate reality Republican president,” wrote CBS News correspondent Will Rahn.

Trump-hating Republican pundits cheered the idea. Liberals warned one another not to get too excited over the prospect.

And why stop at alternate reality president? The punditry quickly filled with speculation that Romney wants the Senate seat as a launching pad for a primary challenge to Trump’s re-election.

This makes, by my count, at least six current or former Massachusetts elected officials to receive 2020 Presidential buzz: Senator Elizabeth Warren, Governor Charlie Baker, Congressman Seth Moulton, former Governor Deval Patrick, former Senator John Kerry, and now Romney.

For the record, I don’t expect any of the above to be sworn in three years from now. But Romney’s as realistic an option as any of them.

I certainly wouldn’t put it past Romney, or his allies, to concoct and execute any devious plan of action. Romney’s career modus operandi is to carefully, quietly, pre-arrange red carpets to welcome himself into new ventures—while protesting that he is a reluctant recruit. The pattern has repeated with Bain Capital, the Olympics, and his Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign.

And, as the Salt Lake Tribune has reported, “big-money backers of Mitt Romney had been busily building an off-ramp that could ease Hatch out of the Senate,” in the words of Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke. They have been putting donations together for creation of a Hatch Center to celebrate his legacy and foster policy research—presumably for Hatch to oversee as a former U.S. Senator.

It has also been noted that 42-year-old Josh Romney, middle of the five Romney sons, is strongly considering his own run for Utah Governor two years from now. That idea has been publicly touted by Ann Romney herself, who also reportedly encouraged her husband to seek the Senate seat.

So, it’s hard to blame anyone looking to find some grand plan at work.

But there’s a simpler explanation. The only surprising element about the retirement announcement from 83-year-old Hatch, who had promised this would be his last term and whose wife is reportedly in ill health, was how long it seemed to take him to accept the reality before him.

And Romney, along with everybody else in Utah politics, could see that the seat was his for the taking—that he would easily sweep to victory if he ran. He, and his family, are long-time major figures in the Mormon Church—his cousin Marion Romney, as Second Counselor, was one of three people to whom God revealed the decision to allow blacks into the priesthood in 1978. Mitt was welcomed as a champion when he ran the 2002 Winter Olympics, and he won nearly three-quarters of the state’s vote in the 2012 Presidential election.

His criticism of Trump has only helped, in a rare GOP-dominant state that disdains the President. A poll last month found that 81 percent of Republicans in the state hold a favorable view of Romney, with just 8 percent unfavorable.

In other words, a U.S. Senate seat was about to be handed to Romney. That’s an awfully rare scenario in American politics, and one that few would decline. Certainly not Mitt Romney, who for whatever faults one might tag him with has always genuinely believed himself to be called to public service.

I don’t think that the calculation is any more calculated than choosing to accept the gift being handed to him. But, that still leaves the question of what he’ll do with it once it’s his.

One of a hundred

The likely answer is: not much. This is not a case of Romney swooping in to run a company, or a non-profit, or a state. He will be one low-ranking Senator among 100—a prestigious position, but hardly one from which he can leave much of an immediate imprint.

His utterances will get more attention than most, but he won’t be able to drive the news cycle, let alone change government policy. There is a reason the Senate is known as a great deliberative body, not a place of great action.

Besides, by the time Romney gets to Washington the terrain will have shifted. Expected Democratic gains in the House, and the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate, will make even the current historically incapacitated Congress seem productive by comparison. Trump’s Presidency may be roiled by the results of the Russia investigation, impeachment proceedings, or both.

Don’t expect Romney to take a hand in hastening those Trumpian troubles, however.

Romney clearly has a personal distaste for Trump, and for Trumpism. But, to the extent that Romney looks to the Senate with a mission in mind, it is likely to be the salvation of the GOP, not the destruction of the President.

He has spent a lifetime in loyal service to the party, and is clearly dismayed at its potential dismantling. But he is smart and strategic enough to believe that the path toward saving the Republican Party is to guide it as calmly as possible toward an eventual post-Trump world—not to ignite a civil war that would accelerate its demise.

And while part of that dismay stems from the crassness that offends Romney’s sense of propriety, he is more likely to focus on genuine policy differences with Trump—and even greater differences with Democrats.

You might be thinking, as many have recently written, that Romney holds no core values on which to focus. That is true of Mitt the candidate, but not the man.

To be sure, everything in Romney’s political career, dating back to his 1994 Senate challenge to Ted Kennedy and including his four years as Bay State Governor, was effectively part of one long Presidential campaign, for which he was willing to sacrifice any principle. But it’s always been possible to see, behind the often stupefying political expediency, a set of quite strong beliefs.

Those have become even more apparent since he lost the 2012 election, putting a seeming end to his campaign life.

Populist, those principals are not. Romney blasted Trump’s economic agenda during the 2016 election. Yet that simply places Romney in the mainstream of Senate Republicans—who have largely worked around Trump’s populist rhetoric on domestic policy. Romney will fit right in.

It is foreign policy where Trump has had Romney fit to be tied, and where he is most likely to speak up against the President—remember, it was the possibility of influencing policy as Secretary of State that lured Romney to dine with Trump a year ago.

That is where his passion has, somewhat unexpectedly, been centered for the past decade or more. And his worldview could hardly be more at odds with Trump’s approach.

Romney believes, as he set out in his 2010 book “No Apology,” that the United States is in an existential battle for world leadership, against three competitors: China, Russia, and violent jihadists. Of these, Romney argues, only America offers fealty to both economic and political freedom. For those values to prevail, American global leadership and strength must be maintained and grown, he wrote: “Our freedom, security, and prosperity are at stake.”

He has watched, and occasionally commented, in horror as Trump preaches withdrawal from that leadership role—and has specifically ceded regional dominance to China and Russia. “We saw things very differently on the foreign policy front with regards to Russia, Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, China, NATO,” Romney reportedly told a group of Republican donors about his January meeting with Trump. “Almost across the board, we were miles apart.”

Expect Romney to join South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and other like-minded Republican Senators in trying to sway Trump’s foreign policy through the method that holds the most promise—sucking up and ego-stroking—rather than fruitless criticism.

There might come a time when Romney decides that the rot at the head of the GOP must be lopped off, despite the harm that will inevitably due to the party. There is no evidence that he is near that point yet, and certainly none to suggest that it is his motivation for wanting the Utah Senate seat.

It seems to me, he just wants to be a U.S. Senator. Does there really need to be more to it than that?

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