Mitt Romney, whose ascent to the U.S. Senate is virtually assured, apparently sought last week to rewrite history when he denied that he’d been a prominent foe of Donald Trump in 2016. It happened while he was stumping in Arizona for a fellow Senate candidate, after reporters mentioned his leading role in the Never Trump movement. In response, Romney said, “I don’t think that was the case.”
Actually, it was. No other Republican of his stature denounced Trump in such raw language, with the goal of halting Trump’s march to the nomination. In a spring 2016 speech, Romney let loose on the man Republican primary voters adored:
Dishonesty is Donald Trump’s hallmark … He’s not of the temperament of the kind of stable, thoughtful person we need as a leader. His imagination must not be married to real power … Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the members of the American public for suckers … He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.
But on Friday, Romney ignored those moral and character critiques. He simply said that Trump’s policies “have been pretty effective, and I support a lot of those policies. Where there’s a place where I disagree, I point that out.” His apparent walk-back was not particularly surprising; Romney has worn many hats during his political career, morphing from moderate Massachusetts governor to social conservative to GOP-establishment scion appalled by Trump-style populism. But it was significant in that it seemed to foreshadow the attitude of Senate Republicans in 2019: It’s Trump’s party, not theirs. Mindful of the president’s iron bond with the Republican base, and without many dissenters left in their ranks, they have been brought to heel.
Regardless of whether Republicans retain control of the Senate—and their November prospects are bullish; they may even pick up a seat or two—the chamber will be more MAGA oriented than ever. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who eviscerated Trump in speeches (though he fell in line at voting time), will be gone. So will Bob Corker of Tennessee, who in 2017 compared Trump’s regime to a “day-care center” and worried that Trump would put America “on the path to World War III.” John McCain, who pivotally put a stop to Obamacare repeal and voted with Trump far less often than most of his Republican colleagues, has been laid to rest.
Some have speculated that Romney would fill the vacuum and become the president’s most prominent intra-party nemesis. After all, he hails from Utah, where the heavily Mormon electorate ceded Trump only 45 percent of its votes. But as the conservative commentator Matt Lewis told me, that now seems unlikely to happen. “Liberals who are hoping that Mitt Romney will be some sort of heroic opposition … will be very disappointed. He clearly doesn’t see that as his role,” Lewis noted. Though he does think the former governor “will function as an experienced ‘adult’ in the Senate,” Romney is “certainly not the savior that people have been waiting for.”
Senate Republicans in the Trump era seem to have accepted the things they cannot change. Romney, arguably more than any of his future colleagues, learned that lesson in 2016. As an unofficial spokesman for the GOP establishment—he chose to forgo a third presidential bid, helping clear the field for Jeb Bush—he discovered to his chagrin that the party base didn’t buy, or care about, his depiction of Trump as a “phony” and a “fraud.” Indeed, the base may have preferred Trump’s depiction of Romney as a “loser” who’d blown a winnable race against Barack Obama in 2012.
The grassroots Republican mood is well summarized by the author Ben Fountain in his new book about Trump-era America, Beautiful Country Burn Again. He writes that the GOP base “is fed up with the party establishment, the country club Republicans who have prospered beyond imagining these past few years.
“And how has the base been doing?” he continues. “Lousy, by pretty much every measure—income, life expectancy, drug addiction, job security, health care, education, and social mobility … No wonder people are pissed off.” Fountain argues that the base loves Trump because “he feels their rage. Even better, he’s beyond the establishment’s control.”
Romney and his like-minded brethren have apparently gotten the message. They don’t want to risk being purged in primaries by Trump-conservative challengers, or being Twitter-bombed by Trump, or being assailed by his supporters as “squishes” (an insult often hurled at Romney). As a result, a 2019 Republican Senate seems poised to double down on its refusal to hold Trump accountable. Jack Pitney, a former Republican Party operative and former Capitol Hill staffer, told me that the Senate “has done a poor job of oversight. Republicans have very little political incentive to hold the executive branch accountable for administrative problems and scandals.” He says that Republicans in the upper chamber see no political upside to confronting Trump, “so they either praise him or at least keep their misgivings to themselves.”
Rather than voicing any extant misgivings he may have, Romney offered praise for Trump’s “effective” policies. While he didn’t list them, it’s well established by now that Republicans and conservatives discomfited by Trump’s rhetoric and style are nevertheless happy with two of his accomplishments in office: the Supreme Court justices he’s helped install and the massive tax-cut bill he signed last year. It’s debatable whether the tax cuts have been “effective” for most Americans, given that the beneficence is skewed toward the upper brackets, not toward those of modest means. But Republicans have so far insisted that working Americans are seeing more money in their paychecks.
What seems most likely, in 2019, is a new phase of legislative gridlock, with a Democratic House launching Trump investigations on numerous fronts, pitted against a Republican Senate that serves the base. And its partisan clout may be stronger than ever. A net gain of only one Senate seat would give the GOP a 52–48 advantage that erases whatever leverage Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine might have to thwart the party line. They do so rarely anyway, and Mitt Romney, symbol of the cowed establishment, isn’t likely to aid them.
Is it even possible at this point for an elected Republican to voice dissent, vote accordingly, and remain politically viable? “I’m not sure any of the GOP senators have figured out how to thread the needle,” Lewis said. It’s Trump’s world; they only live in it.