Mitt Romney faces a choice in his Utah Senate run: Will he be a candidate of complaint and complacency, or one of reform and renewal?
The easy route for Romney would be to settle into the well-traveled rut of anti-reform anti-Trumpism (only one of the variants of anti-Trumpism): Castigate the president for his failings in decorum and character before pivoting to the much more important question — how can we pass some more corporate tax cuts? The anti-reformist wing of anti-Trumpism doubles down on the tenets of a corporatist GOP while attacking the person of Donald Trump. While this might at first seem a safe strategy, it risks leaving its proponents without much of a political constituency. The personal attacks on the president lose much of the Republican base, and the platform of pseudo-austerity (slash taxes for the wealthy and cut entitlements for everyone else) has almost no support with rank-and-file voters outside the GOP (nor is this austerity agenda applauded by many Republican voters). Moreover, central to Trump’s victory in the 2016 primary was the fact that generic Republicanism was an exhausted agenda.
A much more interesting role for a Senator Romney would not be one that insists on nostalgia in order to stop “populism,” but instead one that champions reform in order to address populist demands. This approach would be closer to that of Mike Lee and Tom Cotton than Jeff Flake. It might very well include objections when the president crosses some normative line, but it would also involve actively promoting reforms that would help the GOP adapt to the realities of 2018.
Romney is well-positioned to be a voice for responsible reform in the Trumpian era. Despite the “yuge” differences between the political personae of Mitt Romney and Donald Trump, there are significant continuities between the primary platform of Mitt Romney in 2012 and that of Donald Trump in 2016. In 2012, Romney was one of the most hawkish voices on both illegal immigration and trade with China. In pulling down Rick Perry, Romney specifically targeted the Texas governor’s record on illegal immigration and defended Social Security from Perry’s claim that it was a “Ponzi scheme.” Many of these themes were displaced in the general election, with Romney adapting a more generic GOP messaging strategy. Nevertheless, they were important to Romney’s strategy in the primary and likely could have helped in the general election.
Romney was not a populist in delivery, but many of his defining issues in 2011 and 2012 anticipated the Trump campaign. The former Massachusetts governor saw where the GOP was in 2012: less interested in austerity politics than in economic renewal, more open to trade reform than to entitlement privatization. It’s not surprising that Trump won the GOP primary with these issues; much more surprising is that most of the primary field was willing to leave these issues on the table for a reality-TV star to pick up (Rick Santorum was an early exception to this, and Ted Cruz was an eventual exception, too).
One of the reasons why Republicans have accomplished relatively little this Congress is the inertia of nostalgia. It’s easy to blame this inability to move legislation on the president’s tweets (which have not always helped), but the substance of much legislation itself can be blamed, too. Even Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have been able to sell the failed effort to “repeal” the Affordable Care Act, which mostly focused on cutting subsidies and did little to reform the health-care market. And since the Republican health-care effort of 2017 polled worse than the president, it’s hard to say that the president’s approval rating was the sole cause of the measure’s unpopularity.
Republicans so far have been fortunate in the fallout of the tax bill: Because Democrats and their media allies so overreached in their dire portrayal of the bill, anything less than the Black Death looks like a comparative win to voters. But that fortuitous turn should not overshadow the policy shortcomings of the bill (among them, its effect on the deficit, the way it could box out a real infrastructure program, and the loopholes it could create). Nor can Republicans pin all their political hopes on the continued self-immolation of their opponents. From special-election results to generic ballot polling, many signs suggest that November could still be a struggle.
Romney could help keep Republicans from succumbing to the temptation of using flash-in-the-pan cultural feuds to give a new coat of paint to the same old policies.
So it would be interesting — and likely useful to both the GOP and the country — for Romney to step forward and apply his consultant’s eye to the task of reforming Republican policies. For instance, he could take the lead on trying to find ways to drive down the costs of the health-care system (by opening up and expanding the health-care marketplace, not cutting subsidies for the working class). Or he could become a voice for trade reform or work to replace guest-worker programs with a more skills-based green-card system. If a conservative-populist reset is going to be a realized policy option, it will take a rigorous attention to detail and the hard work of building compromise coalitions.
If Romney were to become this voice for reform, he could help keep Republicans from succumbing to the temptation of using flash-in-the-pan cultural feuds to give a new coat of paint to the same old policies. (The counterpart of anti-reform anti-Trumpism is anti-reform Trumpism, which flatters the president while trying to push through an unreformed policy agenda.) A populist politics that confines itself to loud messaging is one that will fail to deliver on its promises. To rise above fruitless complaint and feckless nostalgia, Republicans will need a combination of discipline, imagination, and civic rectitude. That project needs all the help it can get in the Senate.