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Redemption time for Romney?

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty

I’ve never thought much of Mitt Romney. I described him once in a book as “a vast reservoir of inner nothingness,” which wasn’t very nice.

This is not only because, during his two presidential campaigns, he scrupulously avoided any contact with me, or really with anyone who might have asked him anything that required a complex answer about his own phantom-like agenda.

No, it’s because Romney is a man who seems to lack any fixed point in public life. He’s always approached his ideological convictions the same way he does his allegiances to the various states where he has homes — as strategic assets to be shuffled around whenever it’s convenient, to the point that I doubt even he knows where he truly resides.

And yet, despite all that, I admired Romney’s decision to jump back into the political arena last week, and I’m hoping he can do more than just win Utah’s Senate seat in what will likely be the last chapter of his political odyssey.

Romney is exactly what his party needs at the moment, if he can at last summon the courage to be what the moment demands.

Romney’s small band of loyalists, of course, would argue that he’s never lacked for courage — only emotional fervor and self-righteousness. In their view, Romney is the ultimate corporate analyst, a conservative problem solver who stalks an issue from all sides and then pounces on it with ruthless efficiency.

The former Massachusetts governor may not have been an intrepid candidate, they argue, but he had more than enough inner steel and intellectual heft to govern the country well.

The problem with this formulation, though, is that campaigning and governing aren’t separate; as President Trump has amply demonstrated, how you do one says a lot about how you will do the other. There has never been a timid, equivocating presidential candidate who became, all at once, a fearless and resolute president.

And too often, Romney has treated principled rhetoric like a stretchy suit he can hurriedly change into in a phone booth, then throw into a trash can when no one’s looking.

Thus did Romney stand up almost exactly two years ago, after the first round of Republican primaries, and deliver a caustic, unusually personal rebuke of everything Trump represented as a candidate. In an address carried live on all the cable networks, he used words like “bully,” “phony” and “fraud,” and said Trump was “playing the members of the American public for suckers.”

It was Romney’s finest moment. He had emerged from the shadows to defend the conservative conscience.

Except that he hadn’t, really. What calculating Romney had calculated, it was clear even then, is that Trump didn’t have a majority of the Republican vote, and thus a brokered convention might be in the offing, and with it perhaps the chance to be nominated again.

We know this now because, when it came down to it, after Trump had gone on to win both the party’s nod and the presidency, that same Romney basically threw himself to the floor and licked the boots of the Great Fraud himself.

In what has to be one of the most pathetic displays in the history of presidential transitions, Romney somehow allowed himself to be humiliated in front of the entire country, publicly fawning over Trump and auditioning to become his secretary of state, when it should have been clear to anyone watching that Trump was just being cruel and would sooner have appointed Rosie O’Donnell to the job.

The high point came when Trump took the erudite Romney to a French restaurant so he could grovel awkwardly in front of the cameras. Revenge is a dish best served in béchamel sauce.

At important moments in Trump’s presidency, Romney has again felt emboldened to vent his disgust, and in surprisingly eloquent terms. In a Facebook post last summer, after white supremacists brought filth and tragedy to Charlottesville, Romney excoriated Trump, saying his reaction to the violence “caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn.”

So naturally, when Trump decided to endorse Romney for Senate this week, Romney, having finally learned his lesson, let the president know in blunt terms that he was running to repudiate the dystopian, divisive brand of politics that Trump’s Republican Party represents.

No, I’m just playing with you.

Here’s what Romney actually fired back: “Thank you Mr. President for the support. I hope that over the course of the campaign I also earn the support and endorsement of the people of Utah.”

So that’s how it is. No wonder the general sentiment on social media was that Romney, in pursuit of yet another prize, was about to toss aside the Trump resisters in his own party, yet again.

I’m not going to write off Romney just yet, though. And I’ll tell you why.

For one thing, you have to give the man credit for rushing into a burning building when everyone else is leaping from the ledges. A few weeks shy of his 71st birthday, with a legion of grandchildren and an estimated $250 million in the bank, Romney certainly doesn’t need to come to Washington at a time when a lot of sensible Republicans, having been thoroughly marginalized, are packing up and going home.

You’d have to conclude his belief in service and sacrifice is real, which ought to count for something among his detractors.

And maybe, just maybe, Romney can see, looking through his unfailingly opportunistic lens on the world, that there is a vacuum here begging to be filled.

The party’s governing wing has surrendered to Trump, its leaders in full retreat to the hills, its elder statesmen hiding in exile. The Bushes have gone back to their estates in Texas and Florida. John McCain battles a grave illness. Newt Gingrich joined the occupiers, and Haley Barbour is practicing law somewhere in Mississippi.

Mitt won’t be president; that dream is dead, and he should know it. But he could yet become something he’s never managed to be: the most influential figure in the Republican Party outside of the White House.

If the Romney who gave that speech in 2016 showed up for this campaign in Utah, and went on as a senator to make the case for a more enlightened and less mean vision of conservatism, he might give lesser-known Republicans the courage they need to defy Trump’s ardent base, which they imagine still to be more numerous than it really is.

He could go down in history not as the one-term governor and twice-failed candidate who prostrated himself for a job he couldn’t get, but rather as the aging eminence who returned to government, one last time, to fight for the party he loves, after most of his contemporaries had given up.

Maybe there really is a vast reservoir beneath Romney’s eerily placid surface. And who knows? Maybe this time there’s actually something in it.

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