Monday, July 23, 2018

Romney redux?

THE METAPHOR of “dipping a toe in the water” is a bane of political discourse, invoked forever to describe a prospective candidate’s consideration of a run for the White House. Less attention’s paid to that rare politician who dips that toe in the moist shoreline before the water even gets there.

We may be seeing that with Mitt Romney, the biggest loser of the 2012 presidential contest. We’re more than two years out from the 2020 derby, but it may soon be time to welcome back an old favorite, hopefully smarter than he was before.

In ways both predictable and less predictable, the former Massachusetts governor and prime mover of the Salt Lake City Olympics seems to be slyly entering the 2020 conversation before it’s really even started. But certain statements of his own beg the question of what he’d bring to the table that’s any different from the people there now.

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He’s of course taken the customary route back into the national debate by way of op-ed commentary. Since January 2017, Romney has shrewdly picked his spots, weighing in on various actions and statements by President* Trump, and seizing other opportunities in their own right.

In January, Romney offered fulsome praise to Orrin Hatch, the Republican lion of the Senate who announced his retirement that month.

“I join the people of Utah in thanking my friend, Senator Orrin Hatch for his more than forty years of service to our great state and nation.

“As Chairman of the Senate Finance and Judiciary Committees and as the longest-serving Republican Senator in U.S. history, Senator Hatch has represented the interests of Utah with distinction and honor. Ann and I wish Senator Orrin Hatch and his loving wife Elaine all the best in their future endeavors.”

There was another reason for Romney’s hosannahs for Hatch. Romney threw his hat in the ring for the Utah primary election in June, seeking to replace Hatch in the Senate.

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ROMNEY’S SPOKEN his mind about House Trump, cherry-picking through the policies and practices of the White House, and apparently rejoicing when he’s not in lockstep with The Donald, and otherwise exhibiting some measure of dependent independence. In the early going, he’s been nobody’s poodle.

“I will support the president’s policies when I believe they are in the best interest of Utah and the nation,” Romney writes in the June 24 Salt Lake Tribune.

“I have noted, the first year of his administration has exceeded my expectations; he made our corporate tax code globally competitive, worked to reduce unnecessary regulations and restored multiple use on Utah public land. In addition, I am pleased that he backed away from imposing a 35 percent tariff on all foreign goods. ...

“I have and will continue to speak out when the president says or does something which is divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions. I do not make this a daily commentary; I express contrary views only when I believe it is a matter of substantial significance.”

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And Romney used a familiar metaphor in his own campaign pledge: “I will call them like I see them.” On June 27, Romney won that Utah primary. He’s the odds-on favorite to win Hatch’s Senate seat this November.

He jumped into the debate over Trump’s disaster of a performance in Helsinki, opposite Russian President Vladimir Putin, taking to Twitter to call it “disgraceful and detrimental.” “Russia remains our number one geopolitical adversary; claiming a moral equivalence between the United States and Russia not only defies reason and history, it undermines our national integrity and impairs our global credibility.”

Sometimes his choices haven’t panned out. Writing an op-ed in the Jan. 6 editions of The New York Times, Romney made clear his support for the since-reviled Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education.

“I am truly excited that someone of Betsy DeVos’s capability, dedication and absence of financial bias is willing to take an honest and open look at our schools,” Romney wrote. “The decades of applying the same old bromides must come to an end.”

Fast forward to now: DeVos has been roundly criticized by critics, educators and politicians from almost the beginning.

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THEN HE’S painted outside the lines. Recent promos on the CNBC business channel have teased “Jay Leno’s Garage,” the show that features celebrities driving around in any of Leno’s numerous vehicles. The show’s new season premieres July 26. In the promos, we’re promised appearances by Chris Evans, Trevor Noah, Brad Garrett and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others — “others” including Mitt Romney. “I’ve got a bit of a lead foot,” Romney tells Leno, presumably as part of a segment to run sometime this season.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal — a chance to look at Romney through a non-political lens, to see him as just another wealthy motorhead (one who told us in 2012 that “I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck”). But it’s, well, fun, or at least a diversion from the catastrophe on Pennsylvania Avenue. An alternate view of that candidate we thought we knew backwards and forwards. But diversion is what the country can use right now. At some basic level, Romney understands that.

Whether he jumps into the 2020 derby remains to be seen, but for now Mitt Romney is cannily positioning himself in the public eye, as political elder statesman and not-quite average Joe. We’ll see whether that “lead foot” gets him to take another lap around the campaign trail.

Image credits: Romney at the wheel: Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images. Hatch and Romney: Colin E. Braley/Associated Press. Trump and Romney: Drew Angerer/Getty Images. Jay Leno's Garage title card: CNBC.

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