Everybody’s favorite chameleon Republican, Mitt Romney, arrived in Washington this week flashing a brand-new color.
A never-Trumper during the campaign—“a con man, a fake,” Romney said in a savage March 2016 speech about Donald Trump—Romney so despised the future president that he boycotted his nominating convention in Cleveland. “He’s playing the members of the American public for suckers. He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat,” Romney said in his speech.
But just a few months later, after the election made Trump the president-elect, Romney’s never-Trump colors had faded enough for him to choke back the vomit and sit through an audition with Trump for the job of secretary of state. Trump allowed Romney to kiss and slobber on his ring because he can’t get enough of that. But seeing through whatever protective coloration Romney had conjured up for the meeting, Trump wisely dumped him from contention. Who would want to hire somebody who had called them a “phony” in a national speech?
Then, as Romney came to realize that the contemporary Republican Party had turned into a Trump thing, he further modified his colors. First, he accepted Trump’s endorsement for his senatorial candidacy in Utah. Second, in October 2018, when reporters asked if he wasn’t a hypocrite, he flabbergasted them by saying he’d never been a never-Trump leader!
Rainbow Mitt changed hues again with an op-ed in the Monday Washington Post. Reminding readers that he had opposed Trump’s presidential candidacy, Romney effused positively on Trump’s tax policies, his China trade policy, his criminal justice policies, his regulatory changes and his appointment of conservative judges, calling them all examples of sound Republicanism. He also praised the original team—Tillerson, Sessions, Haley, Cohn, McMaster, Kelly and Mattis—Trump brought to the White House. But the majority of the piece echoed Romney’s March 2016 condemnation of Trump, citing Trump’s bad character, his poor manners, his America first foreign policy, his appeals to “tribalism,” his dismantling of the original White House team and his disregard for the deficit.
If you don’t like Romney’s views on Trump, give them a few minutes. They’ll change.
What does Romney really stand for? You can’t dismiss Romney’s chameleonism as standard political flip-floppery, although his critics note that he’s changed his positions on abortion, Reaganism, Vietnam, health care policy, immigration, stem-cell research, the climate, and even flip-floppery itself over the years (“I’m a strong believer in stating your position and not wavering,” 2002; “I changed my position,” 2007). Rather, Romney subscribes to a personal kind of Rockefeller Republicanism that gives him maximum flexibility to say and do whatever he finds most expedient at the moment that makes Trump look strangely principled in comparison. At least Trump delivers the chaos that he promises.
Romney’s new chameleonism positions him as Trump’s loyal underminer, extolling the president on the upstroke and damning him on the down. The Janus-face act of playing both supporter and critic puts Romney at a distance from departing Republican Trump critics in the Senate like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who didn’t burn much fuel trying to find the “good” in Trumpism. As a hedge position, it also places Romney, who now has a six-year sinecure in the Senate, in a good political position should the Mueller investigation or other political calamity cripple his re-election chances or shuttle him into impeachment hearings.
Nobody who runs for president ever runs just once. Even if defeated the first time out or the second, they run every four years—if only in their mind—until friends or family place them in lockdown. Romney, who is a youthful 71, understands that Trumpism is a political aberration. It has no future as a Republican ideology beyond Trump’s political life because it can’t be expressed as even a semi-consistent set of political positions. Trump has no inheritor on tap—certainly not Mike Pence—should scandal destroy his presidency or a cholesterol-hating god call him to a premature final reward.
For that reason, Romney hopes to be the Trump-loving, Trump-hating stalwart of the Republicanism that the party faithful will turn to if Trump stumbles, crashes, and burns. When and if called, what color will Mitt show voters? Any color they request.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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