With the Democrats soon to be in control of the House of Representatives, the inside-the-beltway punditry has largely posited that a Nancy Pelosi-led House of Representatives will naturally become Donald Trump’s latest bête noire. To be sure, an empowered Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler leading, respectively, the House Intelligence and Justice committees isn't welcome news for the president, but a Democratic House is a threat that the White House should have seen coming long ago.
As veterans of political combat know, the biggest threat isn’t the one you see from miles away; it’s the one you didn’t anticipate, oftentimes because it comes from one of your supposed allies. And in January, Trump’s biggest antagonist in DC may very well emerge from within his own party.
But who is this statesman who will muster the courage to say “enough is enough” and attempt to put an end to the house fire burning at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? What conservative has the gravitas and authority to speak for Republicans who have been gritting their teeth every time that Trump waxes effusively about Vladimir Putin or Mohammed bin Salman?
It’s Mitt Romney, of course. Technically, he’ll be the junior senator from Utah starting January 3, but the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 GOP presidential nominee is the de facto leader of the pre-Trump GOP. Not since Hillary Clinton was elected in 2000 from her adopted state of New York has a junior senator come to Washington with so much clout and influence.
Between Robert Mueller's investigation and the Democrats taking back the House, the Washington media hasn’t given the intramural politics of the Republican Senate and the impact of Mitt Romney much airplay. But Romney’s arrival in Washington might mark the beginning of a political dynamic more problematic for Trump than the Democrats’ regaining control of the House.
The contentious relationship between Romney and Trump is well documented. Although the two have publicly made nice at several junctures for raw political expediency—Romney was rumored at one point to be in the running for Trump’s secretary of State—there is a degree of underlying personal and political animus that will be impossible to keep bottled up now that Romney will have a front-row seat to Trump's eschewing so many traditional GOP policies and norms.
For Romney, the measured, calculated, religious, and refrained management consultant, there is no greater a polar opposite in business or politics, nor in matters of faith and family life than Donald Trump. These differences were put on full public display in the heat of the 2016 Republican Primaries when Romney, who at the time was the spiritual leader of the ultimately unsuccessful “Never Trump” movement, called out the future president, slamming him as “a phony” and “a fraud” who is “playing the American public for suckers.”
“Think of Donald Trump's personal qualities, the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics,” Romney said in a speech in March of 2016. "We have long referred to him as The Donald. He is the only person in America to whom we have added an article before his name. It wasn't because he had attributes we admired.”
Romney evidently sees Trump as a pathogen that has infected his party, and with each and every Tweet or impulsive directive, he is steering the country into more dangerous waters. And Romney may feel that he is the guy who can right the ship—and he wouldn’t mind getting the credit for doing so. Keep in mind that Romney is probably not in the Senate just to be a great senator for the people of Utah; he clearly continues to harbor higher aspirations.
And unlike nearly every Republican in the Senate—and unlike Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, the Trump antagonist who retired to avoid facing reelection—Romney just got elected in a deep-red state that is decidedly un-Trumpy. Although he won the state’s six electoral college votes, Trump managed to lock in only 46 percent of the vote, with a virtually unknown third-party candidate picking up a solid fifth of the ballots. Trump’s coattails in Utah are virtually nonexistent, so Romney has plenty of freedom to push back against Trump without having to face a firing squad back home. When he ran for president in 2012, Romney won Utah with 73 percent of the vote, and in his latest race for the Senate, he scored a nearly equally decisive victory, with 63 percent. And even if Trumpist voters in Utah are unhappy with him, Romney won’t have to face reelection for six years, 100 lifetimes from now in modern US politics.
Whereas nearly all other Republicans in the Senate fear the political pound of flesh that Trump’s base may extract if they don't follow the president off of whatever cliff he's teetering on, Romney has no such concerns. Here are three early signs that Mitt Romney is lacing up to go mano a mano with the President:
- The battle to approve the new attorney general. Expect to see Romney dig in and demand that his support for the new AG be conditional on that nominee to vow to uphold the rule of law and protect Mueller and his investigation.
- Shielding the Mueller Investigation from White House Meddling. So far, this idea has been a non-starter for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but expect to see Romney voice his support for legislation protecting the investigation from President Trump.
- The Wall. Romney, who often touted his fiscal chops on the campaign trail in 2012, might take a very public stand against Trump’s quixotic quest to invest $5 billion in a physical wall no one in Washington besides Trump himself seriously thinks we need. His stance against Trump’s pet project could provide cover for a handful of other fiscal conservatives in the Senate to join him in shooting down the idea.
Romney is uniquely positioned to take a stand. He likely knows that historians will not be kind to Donald Trump, nor to his enablers, and that although the cost of excising Trump from the White House may render some short-term setbacks for the GOP in 2020, Mitt Romney may very well end up cast in the role of this generation’s Lowell Weicker, the senator from Connecticut who became the first Republican to call for the Richard Nixon’s resignation. History may very well see Romney as the man who brought the GOP back to sanity after the Trump fever finally broke.
Arick Wierson is public relations executive, national opinion columnist, and former senior media advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. You can follow him on Twitter
Bradley Honan is the CEO and President of Insights & Strategy, a Democratic polling and analytics firm and a former political adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, and Tony Blair. You can follow him on Twitter.