The Return of Romney
When President Donald Trump repeatedly made reference to the late Senator John McCain’s iconic thumbs-down vote on last year’s Obamacare repeal during midterm campaign stops, his message was clear: he sought nothing less than a unified bloc of loyal Republicans in Congress, and GOP lawmakers who failed to toe the party line would be duly censured.
On Tuesday, Trump lost the House but increased his Senate majority, gaining at least three seats (he is only the third president in 100 years to do so). With McCain gone, along with Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, the outspoken chair of the Foreign Relations Committee — both of whom notably clashed with Trump — the president faces diminished resistance from within his party, reducing the risk that a lone outlier could derail his legislation.
Gone largely unnoticed, however, in Tuesday’s election, was the return of Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and 2012 presidential nominee, to political office. Romney, Senator-elect for Utah, is qualified to meet the need for an independent voice of reason in the era of Trump, say a number of his supporters and former aides.
“I think, to the extent that his thoughts agree with President Trump’s, you’re going to see that President Trump would have no greater supporter in the U.S. Senate,” Fred Zeidman, a past Romney bundler and a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told Jewish Insider. “And to the extent that he disagrees with him, I think that he will voice that and lead the opposition.”
Trump and Romney have a complicated past. In 2012, Trump endorsed Romney for president, calling him “tough” and “smart.” But as he mounted his own presidential campaign in 2015, Trump repeatedly mocked Romney for “choking like a dog” in the previous presidential election against Barack Obama. Romney, in turn, described the then-real estate mogul as a “fraud” and “phony.”
The two patched up their relationship following the 2016 election. Trump considered Romney as a possible Secretary of State and issued an early endorsement of Romney’s bid to replace Senator Orrin Hatch. Since then, Romney has managed to navigate his way around Trump, praising his first year in office but also criticizing the president’s Charlottesville comments and, most recently, saying he believed the Robert Mueller probe should continue despite the firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“I believe Senator-elect Romney has the credibility to stick to his own brand and not be easily categorized,” Lisa Spies, who had previously served as Romney’s Jewish outreach director, told Jewish Insider. She said that Romney would support conservative reform and work with lawmakers who share his values.
Phil Rosen, a past Romney bundler and RJC board member, anticipates that Romney will most often toe the party line, primarily because he and Trump agree, fundamentally, on policy. “He has voiced his support for the administration with respect to the economy, Israel and Mideast policy and many other successful efforts,” Rosen noted. “And he will work with the Trump administration to push those policies forward.”
The picture painted recalls that of Corker, who voiced his disagreements with Trump at times — often in harsh terms — but voted with the President 84 percent of the time, according to a FiveThirtyEight tally.
“I think very much so,” Zeidman said when asked if Romney would wear the Corker hat in the Senate. “When Corker agreed with the president he led the parade. And when he disagreed with the President, he led the parade,” he explained. “Romney is so driven to get things done that he has a great sense of compromise and I think he will work very, very closely with the White House to try and reach compromise positions that will allow the administration to govern.”
Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon official who also served as a foreign policy advisor on the Romney presidential campaign, believes Romney feels comfortable enough, morally and politically, to stand out in defiance of Trump. “Even if Trump is re-elected, Romney will be up for re-election when Trump is leaving. So I don’t feel that he’s going to have any fear of Trump or any real need to bow down to him,” Zakheim predicted.
“He represents a very different kind of Republicanism,” he continued, adding, “Most Mormons that I know are anti-Trump. I don’t see that Romney has any particular loyalty, allegiance, or sense of obligation to Trump.”
According to Ron Krongold, a Miami businessman and a RJC board member, Romney could influence Trump in areas where they don’t agree, like the U.S. relationship with China and Russia. During the 2012 election, Romney stated that Russia “is without question our number one geopolitical foe.” Trump, Krongold suggested, will benefit from discussion with Romney and “take his intuitive outlook on these matters in consideration.”
Krongold emphasized that Romney “also has all the ingredients to be an independent thinker,” which certainly raises the possibility that the two might clash at some point.
“I think he’s going to be a classic Republican,” said Zakheim. “That’s what he’s always been. He’s a man of decency. He’s a man of impeccable personal conduct. And I think people will see him as something very different.”