Romney to Utah congressional delegation: "Who's going to stand up to Trump?"

A fun leftover from this Friday profile of Romney’s sureshot Senate campaign in Utah. News broke this afternoon that he was treated successfully for prostate cancer this past year, a personal detail that doubtless would have remained private unless he was about to reenter public life and wanted any information that might give voters pause disclosed early, before his next campaign begins in earnest.

He’s getting in. And he’s going full anti-Trump.

“There’s got to be somebody who can stand up to the president,” Romney told members of the Utah congressional delegation in recent weeks, according to a person with knowledge of his comments. “Who’s going to stand up to Trump?”

“I’ve been told that Romney has said he wants to be a McCain-like figure in the Senate,” says Dave Owen, a longtime Utah Republican strategist who doesn’t count himself a Romney supporter.

It’s hard to think of a phrase about Republicans that would make grassroots righties shudder more than “McCain-like figure.” But don’t get too excited: He’s not really going “full anti-Trump.” Especially not during the campaign itself.

But while Romney has clandestinely mulled the McCain model, it is not expected to be part of his likely campaign, which he’s expected to launch in the coming weeks. Sensitive to the national attention that will swarm his candidacy, the former governor is poised to keep laser-focused on Utah’s needs, dutifully traversing the state and showcasing successful local policies that that could be applied to Washington, according to a person who has discussed a potential Senate bid with him. More practically, Romney has no interest in igniting a Twitter war with Trump before he even arrives in Washington.

It would indeed behoove a carpetbagger from Michigan by way of Massachusetts to show that he cares about Utah policy when running to represent Utah in the Senate, however foregone a conclusion his victory might be. And it makes all the sense in the world for him not to antagonize Trump as a candidate. It wouldn’t help him in any way. Republican Trump-haters in Utah already expect Mitt to be one of them once he arrives in Washington; Trump-lovers expect it too but are likely resigned to his victory and unwilling to spend much energy opposing it provided that he doesn’t pick a fight with them by bashing the president. Trump himself is also apt to lie low, fearing that it’d blow up in his face if he spent political campaign in Utah to try to stop Romney and failed miserably. If anything, Trump is probably looking to endorse Romney early to earn a little goodwill from a rare Senate Republican over whom he won’t have much leverage.

As for what type of senator Romney will be, it’d be amusing and satisfying if he took Ross Douthat’s advice and tried to out-Trump Trump:

[T]he defining pitch of the [2012] Romney campaign was the tone-deaf “you built that,” which valorized entrepreneurs and ignored ordinary workers; the defining policy blueprint was a tax reform proposal that offered little or nothing to the middle class; and the defining gaffe was the famous “47 percent” line, in which Romney succumbed, before an audience of Richie Riches, to the Ayn Randian temptation to write off struggling Americans as losers…

Right now there is a small caucus in the Republican Party for a different way, for a conservatism that seeks to cure itself of Romney Disease by becoming genuinely pro-worker rather than waiting for a worse demagogue than Trump to come along. Did I say small? I meant very small: It basically consists of Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of (ahem) Utah, plus perhaps Arkansas’s Tom Cotton and a few other figures trying to adapt to Trumpism rather than just surviving it.

Romney joining Rubio and Lee to pound the table for a bigger child tax credit and other middle-class tax breaks would be a confounding development for Trumpists who hate his guts for various reasons, beginning with his vicious attacks on Trump in 2016, but profess that Bannon-style working-class populism is the future of the party. Trump pays lip service to that too but thus far he’s been content to rubber-stamp virtually anything Ryan and McConnell have sent him. Imagine if one of the points of Romney’s Trump criticism was that the president … isn’t populist enough. Imagine Breitbart trying to process that. Granted, Romney transforming from the most country-club Republican presidential nominee since Bush 41 into a blue-collar champion would seem absurd, but political transformations are what the Romney brand is all about. He was a liberalish Republican in Massachusetts, a values warrior in 2008, a business-friendly technocrat in 2012, and now he can be Johnny Populist. The only constant in life is Mitt’s inconstancy. He should embrace it.

One last fun detail from the piece linked up top. Boyd Matheson, another prominent Republican, speculates that if the GOP gets wiped out next fall and ends up in the Senate minority, the man who could replace Mitch McConnell as minority leader is … Mitt Romney. Uh, really? A freshman senator with less experience than literally every other member of the caucus is suddenly going to play quarterback? I don’t think so. Matheson’s reasoning is that, with the Trump-led GOP having been dealt a strong rebuke by voters in the midterms, they’ll want to rebrand before 2020 to whatever extent they can as independent from the president. What better way to do that than to make the 2012 nominee, who’s famous for his withering criticism of POTUS, the new face of the Senate? If only it were that simple, though. For better or worse, the fortunes of congressional Republicans in 2020 will be tied to Trump’s own fortunes; having Romney as a counterweight to Trump won’t matter given the enormous gravity exerted by Trump’s far more massive political weight. And the whole thing would backfire by alienating loyal Trumpers, whom the party would need to turn out for downballot candidates in 2020. Making Romney minority leader could produce the worst of both worlds, in which Democrats and independents view Trump as the face of congressional Republicans despite Romney’s best efforts while Mitt-hating populist Republicans views Romney as the face of congressional Republicans despite Trump’s best efforts. The party’s better off sticking with a vanilla pol like Cornyn or Thune as new minority leader if McConnell is deposed after the midterms than with Mitt.