How long will Mitt Romney stand up to President Trump? If history is the judge, as long as it’s good for Mitt Romney.
For now, the senator from Utah and former Republican presidential nominee is at least sticking his neck out. And, being Romney, no doubt checking to see who else is following.
With a few tweets from his personal Twitter account, Romney is now one of four Republican senators who have faulted Trump for trying to drag foreign countries into America’s presidential politics. The others are Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Susan Collins of Maine, and Rob Portman of Ohio. To the pro-impeachment brigade, this is exciting news. But anyone who knows Romney from his days as governor of Massachusetts also knows it’s way too early to nominate him for a Profile in Courage Award.
At any given moment, Romney is looking out for what’s best — for Romney. That not to say he never gets behind a cause that’s good for others, too. But with Romney, cause is so intertwined with ambition, it’s hard to separate one from the other — until he does it by throwing his own agenda under the bus. That’s what he did with the health care reform he championed in Massachusetts and rejected when it became the template for Obamacare.
With Trump, what’s best for Romney has long been up for serial recalculation. When he ran for president in 2012, Romney gratefully accepted Trump’s endorsement. Then, in 2016, Romney called Trump out as a phony and fraud, whose “promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” After Trump’s shocking victory, Romney swallowed frog legs along with his pride, as New York magazine put it, and ate dinner with the president-elect in a vain attempt to become secretary of state. Despite that humiliation, Romney again accepted Trump’s endorsement when he ran for Senate in 2018. Then, right before he was sworn in, Romney wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, calling out Trump for his lack of character and failure to rise “to the mantle of the office.” Romney then went quiet — until recent headlines about Trump’s appeals to foreign countries to conduct investigations into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, a potential rival in 2020.
“If the President asked or pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme,” tweeted Romney on Sept. 22. He followed up on Oct. 4, tweeting: “By all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.”
Trump responded with typical crudeness, calling Romney “a pompous ass” who never knew how to win and should be impeached. Romney, tweeted Trump, “has been fighting me from the beginning, except when he begged me for my endorsement for his Senate run . . . and when he begged me to be Secretary of State.”
Romney followed that up the next day by tweeting a photo of himself, his wife, and two grandchildren, with the words, “Enjoyed the pumpkin patch with my sweetheart and the two little pumpkins we brought with us.” In the photo, he looks like everything Trump isn’t — gracious, kind, and happy. In other words, the perfect way to earn even more contempt from Trump and his base.
On Monday, Romney also joined other Republican critics of Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds by withdrawing US troops from Syria. Yet Romney’s still no John McCain, eager to boldly lead as a renegade, regardless of consequences. He’s speaking up against Trump, just enough to claim credit if Trump falls. If that happens, Romney could be seen as the courageous leader who retakes the party and leads it in 2020. It’s a long shot, but at this point, it’s the best shot Romney has for the Oval Office.
For that opportunity to present itself, Romney has to keep sticking his neck out. Ultimately, that will take spine.