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What’s Romney Playing At?

So what is Mitt Romney up to?

In this week's Washington Post, the newly elected junior senator from Utah and 2012 presidential nominee, launched a scathing critique of President Trump, a fellow Republican.

In the op-ed, Romney wrote this about the occupant of the job he once sought: “I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions”. 

Strong words. 

For a man who has spent most of his adult life seeking higher office, Romney is a strangely inaccessible character. Were he a cooler cat, you might flatter him with "mercurial", but the former Massachusetts governor is far from cool. He is a wind-up Ken doll – all grown up but lacking the personality.

Despite Romney's decades-long pursuit of public office, it appears he is poorly understood.

To some, Romney's insertion into the debate surrounding the Trump presidency, one day before his Senate swearing in, was a craven and transparent power play aimed, yet again, at securing the Oval Office.

How so, you might ask? Well this hypothesis suggests Mitt, by writing this op-ed, is signalling his preparedness not only to take on Trump rhetorically, but to offer himself as the one Republican best suited to rescue the party from his clutches.

The way the op-ed is written – focusing on character issues while praising Trump’s more mainstream accomplishments – certainly has GOP primary voters in mind.

No doubt the article is also designed to remind them he remains at the ready, with a powerful fundraising machine and a unique ability to hit the ground running in the event of Trump's demise.

Because Utah, despite being a heavily Republican state, is notably anti-Trump, the risk of a backlash among his own constituency is minimal. Positioning himself as the embodiment of NeverTrumpism, harkening back to a gentler era, Romney is merely, as Paul Keating might say, backing the horse called Self Interest.

He realises he can't feign chumminess with the president – it's hard to imagine more different people – and he's smart enough to realise a successful Trump presidency dooms Romney’s further advancement. So why not load up his chips on the side of the table against Trump making it to re-election. His religious injunction against gambling aside, it's a smart bet. 

A second hypothesis argues that Romney is merely engaged in low stakes self-aggrandisement, and that the op-ed is nothing more than a feeble slap on Trump's tiny wrist. These critics contend Romney's words will not translate into substantive action once he enters the Senate.

They recall the nauseating spectacles of Romney bending the knee to Trump during the 2012 primaries, and then again in slavish pursuit of the Secretary of State gig in the wake of the 2016 election. Much breathless pearl-clutching on Romney's part preceded both humiliating encounters. He railed, then as now, about Trump’s racist, xenophobic, protectionist agenda, as well as his grotesque political style. These episodes go a long way towards validating the interpretation of Romney's op-ed as toothless and self-serving; sure to be followed by much obsequious kowtowing when the circumstances suit.

The third common response to Romney today, and the most muted, is that Romney is stepping up to the plate in ways that other Republicans should follow. Fellow NeverTrumpers, who can be forgiven for grasping at straws, see in Romney's words the outline of an authentic conservative resistance.

The optimistic among them hope it marks an inflection point, after which Romney will inspire Senate colleagues to finally move decisively against the erratic and spiralling president. Romney is well suited to be a credible front man. 

Fair's fair: the latter point is right. In Trump's fetid swamp, Romney is indeed a relative clean skin. He has not been in Congress, and most recall his presidential campaign as one of dignity and restraint, certainly compared to what followed.

And despite temptation on both parts, he dodged the Secretary of State role that could not conceivably have ended well for either man. As Republican consultant and insult genius Rick Wilson so famously coined, Everything Trump Touches Dies (also the title of his book). 

Romney is not entirely unscathed, but he remains upright. His absence from the national stage has served him well. He certainly can be a plausible voice against Trump in the Senate; the question remains whether he will fuse action with words.

A single senator has considerable power to disrupt the White House agenda. Single handedly, she or he can delay appointments, divert legislative priorities and play any number of parliamentary stalling tricks.

That's where erstwhile Trump critics in the Senate, like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker stopped short for the most part. If Romney follows their lead, and restricts himself to tweets and impassioned floor speeches, he will disappoint no less than they did.

If, however, today's contribution portends a more muscular and principled approach, Mitt may finally shed his well-earned image as a hyper cautious, courage-lacking vessel of personal ambition. Personally, I wouldn't bet the house on it – certainly not the White House.

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