On one level, Mitt Romney’s annual gathering of the political and business elite this weekend on a mountaintop is just something that rich people do. And let’s face it, it’s the former Massachusetts governor’s right to do what he wants these days.
It has been five years since he ran for president. He was passed over to be President Trump’s US secretary of state. He has no other business obligations. In case you’re wondering about his counterparts, one former Massachusetts governor has taken up beekeeping these days and another collects turkey carcasses.
But in the age of the Trump presidency, Romney’s E2 Summit in Park City, Utah, might represent something else: America’s establishment acting like the establishment is supposed to act. That is to say, sitting down to craft leadership ideas to help guide the nation in uncertain times and then finding ways to make them happen.
The 2016 presidential election was a rough one for the nation’s elite. Donald Trump ran a populist campaign that was successful in part because of the perception that the country’s ruling political and financial classes had failed average Americans. The establishment, some believed, cared more about itself than working to serve the nation at large.
That Trump, a first-time candidate, could defeat the nation’s two most prominent political families (Bush and Clinton) on the way to the White House appeared to be a payback of sorts. Instead of choosing experienced candidates, the electorate — or at least the Electoral College — chose someone who said he wanted to drain the swamp.
But Romney’s conference could signal a first, tentative step toward the establishment’s comeback, a sign that bipartisan leaders — from House Speaker Paul Ryan to former vice president Joe Biden — are ready to refocus their efforts on serving both the country and the world.
What’s different this year? Unlike Romney’s past conferences, which tended to be about keeping donors happy and pushing Romney-specific initiatives, this weekend’s lineup focuses on big ideas and a bigger mission.
Conference organizers haven’t released an agenda, but panels appear to address the dual themes of American leadership at home and around the world. The 300 attendees, most of them leaders in politics, philanthropy, and business, will be encouraged to create new organizations (think nonprofits or political action committees) based on the ideas that emerge.
Guests will include the heads of FedEx and Microsoft, along with Ryan, Biden, and senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. New England residents like New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, inventor Dean Kamen, and the founder of Boston’s Year-Up nonprofit, will also be there.
“The purpose is to gather leaders of business and political representatives of both sides to discuss the future of American leadership,” said Matt Waldrip, the summit’s executive director. The conference opened Thursday, and Romney is expected to give longer remarks Friday.
The fact that topics like US leadership abroad will take center stage could be seen as a rejection of Trump’s worldview. The president has signaled he wants the United States to step back from a leadership role on everything from military agreements to trade accords to international climate change deals.
But Romney’s foreign policy vision has long been about a more robust American presence around the world, which makes him the right person to lead this kind of initiative. Biden’s presence on stage will also give the event more of a bipartisan flair — a hint that we can, in fact, return to a time when Republicans and Democrats engaged in civil discourse, working together on big questions.
Ryan Williams, who worked for Romney for a decade, both in the Massachusetts State House and on his political campaigns, said that however cliched it sounds, what Romney wants “is to leave a country better off for his children and grandchildren.
“Just because we didn’t have the most substance-based debate in the 2016 election doesn’t mean we should give up on big ideas,” Williams said.
That might be a good mission statement for the establishment at large as it trudges ahead in the age of Trump.sign up here