When I first caught up with Romney, in June, he was in a buoyant mood, preparing to deliver his “maiden speech” from the Senate floor later that day. I asked him how he was settling in. “This is great!” he replied. “I mean, everybody told me I was going to hate it here.”
I confessed that I was among those who thought he might not enjoy being the 97th most senior member of the Senate.
“I think people forget I worked for 10 years as a management consultant,” Romney said, referring to his time at Bain & Company. “Which meant I was able to make no decisions, I was able to get nothing done, and I had to try and convince people through a long process.” In retrospect, it seems, he was destined for the U.S. Congress.
Romney told me that he doesn’t think much anymore about his 2012 defeat to Barack Obama. “My life is not defined in my own mind by political wins and losses,” he said. “You know, I had my career in business, I’ve got my family, my faith—that’s kind of my life, and this is something I do to make a difference. So I don’t attach the kind of—I don’t know—psychic currency to it that people who made politics their entire life.”
Not everyone he’s met in the Senate shares this outlook, he said. “People are really friendly, they’re really nice—except Bernie,” he said, laughing. “He’s a curmudgeon. It’s not that he’s mean or whatever; he just kind of scowls, you know”—Romney hunched his back and summoned a Scrooge-like grunt. “For Bernie, it seems like this is kind of who he is. It’s defining. It’s his entire person. For me, it’s part of who I am, but it’s not the whole person.”
After he was elected in November, Romney began typing out a list on his iPad of all the things he wanted to accomplish in the Senate. It was 50 items long by the time he showed it to his staff, and though they laughed, he continued undeterred. By the time we spoke, it had grown to 60, with priorities ranging from complex systemic reforms—overhauling the immigration system, reducing the deficit, addressing climate change—to narrower issues such as compensating college athletes and regulating the vaping industry.
As he searched the Senate for legislative partners, Romney told me, he was warned that his efforts were likely doomed. Even in less polarized, less chaotic times, the kind of ambitious agenda he had in mind would be unrealistic. But Romney was steadfast in his optimism. “I’m not here to say it can’t happen,” he told me.
When I broached the subject of Trump that afternoon in June, Romney’s face didn’t register the familiar mix of panic and dread that most GOP lawmakers exhibit these days when faced with questions about the president. If anything, he seemed a little bored by the topic. I had heard repeatedly from people close to Romney that his decision to run for Senate was motivated in part by his alarm at Trump’s ascent. But he still seemed to believe that he could illuminate a path forward for his party without incessantly feuding with the president. “I’m not in the White House,” he told me. “I tried for that job; I didn’t get it. So all I can do from where I am is to say, ‘All right, how do we get things done from here?’”