Not president, not yet a senator: Romney starting over
Washington – Mitt Romney is a man in-between.
He made it to Washington after all – but not as president of the United States, the office he sought twice and other men won. He’s not yet a senator from Utah, either, until he’s sworn in Jan. 3. Romney, lifelong executive in public and private life, doesn’t have a permanent office, a place to live or a solid sense of what it will be like to shift from being the top leader to just one of 100 ambitious personalities.
For now, Romney, 71, is acclimating to the rarified Senate, where he’s shuttling between his temporary basement office and meetings, little-noticed in the brimming corridors of power where seniority and tradition rule. Behind him is real-world fame as the former standard-bearer of the Republican Party, now commanded by President Donald Trump and his in-your-face style. Ahead of Romney is life as a junior senator in a role Senate leaders are just beginning to sketch out.
“It’s been a learning experience,” Romney said Tuesday as he hurried from a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a suite that overlooks the National Mall. “Hopefully, I have the capacity to take on different roles.”
Romney is from neither Massachusetts, where he was governor, nor Utah, where he lives and which he will represent in the new, 116th Congress. He’s from Michigan, where his father, George W. Romney, was governor in the 1960s. But Romney earned his status as Utah’s adopted son when in 1999 he took over the Salt Lake City Olympics and helped steer it through a bribery scandal to successful games three years later.
After being governor, the presidency was Romney’s goal. But in 2008, he lost the Republican nomination to Sen. John McCain, who then lost the big prize to Democrat Barack Obama. Four years later, it was Romney and then-Rep. Paul Ryan challenging Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Romney went down in defeat, derided by some in the GOP as too moderate and disconnected from the economic struggles of most Americans. Then Trump won the nation’s highest office over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
All along, Romney’s relationship with Trump has veered between bitter rivalry and potential – but unrealized – alliance. That’s raised hopes on Capitol Hill that Romney might serve as a truth-teller to a president who routinely replaces fact with fiction. Some are hoping that the mild-mannered Romney bucks his party on policy when he chooses.
“I think with John McCain passing, for example, Mitt believes that there’s a role for him in our party in being … a standard-bearer in our party,” said Ryan, now the retiring House speaker, told The Washington Post Thursday. Ryan and others said they’re looking for Romney to seek a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to help build back relationships that Trump’s “America first” policy may have eroded.
Committee assignments – let alone Romney’s role – will in large part be determined by McConnell, other Senate veterans and tradition. As a junior senator, Romney will be seated toward the end of the committee rostrum. He’ll be among the last asked to speak, and he’ll have to wait awhile to make his maiden floor speech.
On the upside, Romney will get a bit of rank among freshmen for having been a governor.
“But not much,” chortled Sen. Roy Blunt, who’s known the Romneys for years. Blunt said he’s spoken with Romney several times about the transition from having been an executive to serving in an institution where work and collaboration – and yes, a degree of deference – matter most.
“Being a governor where you can say, ‘I’d like this to happen today,’ and in many instances it actually happens today, is a lot different than being a senator where things take time and things seldom work out exactly the way you want them to,” Blunt said. “You have to pivot and move forward. For Gov. Romney, coming to the Senate is one way to pivot and move forward and that’s an important trait to have, if you’re going to be an effective part of the Senate.”
“Everybody already knows him,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “I don’t think he has any sense of regret. I think he’s eager to jump right in.”
Those close to Romney point out that unlike most freshmen, Romney comes to Congress with years-long relationships with many members, including with McConnell. His niece is Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel. And as a presidential candidate, he helped raise huge sums of money for congressional colleagues over the last decade.
There are signs that Romney intends to keep up that role in Washington, where campaign cash-raising prowess can confer influence. On Tuesday night, his recently-formed Believe in America PAC and joint fundraising committee, Team Mitt, held its first fund raiser in Washington. Attendees were asked to contribute $5,000.
On the issues, Romney is eager to play a role in foreign policy, fiscal policy and, to a lesser degree, immigration, according to close advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal discussions.
While his relationship with Trump has improved dramatically, underlying tensions remain. In June, after Romney predicted Trump would win a second term, Trump said: “Mitt’s a straight shooter – whether people love him or don’t love him.”
Throughout his Senate campaign, Romney insisted that he would agree with Trump on some issues and not be shy about disagreeing on others.
Look for the Republican heavyweights to clash on foreign policy, perhaps above all.
Romney continues to believe that Russia remains America’s greatest geopolitical foe, a position he first outlined in 2012 that puts him in direct conflict with Trump, who has warmed to Russian President Vladimir Putin. And Romney was quick to condemn Trump’s muted response to Saudi Arabia’s brutal killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Senate Democrats report cordial welcome-to-Washington conversations with Romney, but they’re hesitant to predict that he’ll be a bridge between them and empowered Senate Republicans.
“I think he brings a lot to the table as a new senator with a national reputation, from a conservative state,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, who said he chatted with Romney at a recent dinner. “We’ll see what happens.”