There he stood, a Harvard MBA man, a man of numbers, backing a collapsing equity. Mitt Romney took to the podium in Salt Lake City, the place where he rose to prominence in 2002 as Olympic chief, and urged the GOP delegates to back Sen. Bob Bennett, Utah’s three-term incumbent. Despite Romney’s pleas, Bennett ended the day with a worthless bronze, dumped from the primary. For Romney, however, the moment was a silver — not a victory, but an impressive showing.
When he ran for president, Romney was considered a little too calculating, a little too cool. Since then, he’s been busy as an endorser and a booster, but that rap hasn’t worn. As he travels around the country aiding candidates through his PAC and peddling his bestseller, voters still wonder: What does Mitt really believe in? What will he stick his neck out for?
Understandably, who Romney endorses, when, and why is a big part of answering that question. Sometimes, the Mitt approval comes a bit late, like with Marco Rubio in Florida. Other times it goes to old foes like John McCain, whose support he’d like in 2012. And sometimes he picks a real winner, early, like Scott Brown, whose outta-nowhere campaign reflected well on his old Bay State ally. Usually with contested primaries, he stays out entirely. With Bennett, the stakes were a bit different. He cut an ad for the Utah senator, an old friend, months ago, and that could have been the end. But to come to Salt Lake to challenge Bennett’s tea-party opponents to their face? That kind of confrontation is not exactly the work of a man scheming to gently rope the tea-party crowd and avoid controversy on the way to ‘12.
Some will rightly claim that Romney was helping Bennett because Bennett was a supporter of both TARP and, at one point, an individual mandate. So, Romney, a TARP-vote sympathizer who included a mandate in Massachusetts’s health-care program, was, the argument goes, obliged. Still, while Romney may have defended Bennett to defend himself, he didn’t need to come to Salt Lake in the final hour. No, he could have issued a statement or made a comment or two on Fox. Romney doesn’t need to play around in Utah. He doesn’t need the hassle. He won 89 percent of the vote there in 2008.
Romney’s betting that in two years, GOP voters won’t care much about Bennett being retired. What they’ll remember is a strategic consultant-type purposefully making a bad bet. Why he did it, politically, is complicated, but it shows the man can make a gut choice, and a bad bet for a good man. It’s one thing to be a flip-flopper on policy, it’s another thing to be one with your political allies.
With Saturday’s speech, Romney’s hoping that voters will remember a man who stood up for a friend, not the easy political option. It’s a gamble that comes with a twist. While he gets a hat tip from some for backing a loser out of principle, he also showed that he has little sway with the group that ousted Bennett, folks who seemingly could care less about Romney’s stand. For a probable presidential candidate, that’s disquieting. But as RFK once said, “only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”
Seeing Romney out on a limb, daring to debate the tea party about the future of the GOP, is refreshing. Right or wrong, he’s at least showing that he can lead.