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Trump and Romney: The oddest couple

It must be a mark of how middle-aged and middle-of-the-road I've become that I'm actually excited about Mitt Romney r...

Posted: Feb. 21, 2018 12:46 PM
Updated: Feb. 21, 2018 12:46 PM

It must be a mark of how middle-aged and middle-of-the-road I've become that I'm actually excited about Mitt Romney running for the Senate. I'll explain why I'm offering my support later -- because far more important is that Donald Trump has beaten me to it. The President posted an endorsement of Romney's Utah candidacy on Twitter. Romney replied with gratitude.

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This is surprising given their famous animosity, but it speaks to how complicated conservative politics has become.

The nadir of the Romney/Trump relationship was 2016, when Romney, realizing that Trump was about to take the Republican nomination, denounced him as a "fraud" who was "playing the American public for suckers." Trump replied that Romney had "choked like a dog" in his 2012 race against Barack Obama.

These insults sum up their vastly different approaches to politics. Romney dislikes Trump because he thinks he is dishonest and divisive. Trump dislikes Romney because he is a loser.

Now that Romney's running for the Senate, it's hard not to see him as a potential leader of mainstream conservative opposition to Trump. He didn't mention the President in his announcement video, but he did call for greater "respect" in politics and suggested that legal immigrants should be welcomed. Should Mitt win -- and, for the moment, he has little competition -- he would be a critic of stature and celebrity in Congress.

The gentlemanly exchange between Trump and Romney is a tacit acknowledgment of each other's significance. But it also nods toward the nuance of their long relationship.

Trump endorsed Romney in 2012. Trump claimed that Romney begged him for help during a primary season when he faced a surprisingly tough battle against Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, that year's grassroots champions. Even then it was understood that Trump spoke for a nationalist base that Romney -- incredibly rich and hopelessly patrician -- struggled to reach. He'll need those voters if he wants a landslide in Utah in 2018.

It's true that Trump was never popular in Utah and that a local Romney-esque candidate called Evan McMullin did rather well in 2016. But it's still heavily GOP and Trump's backers are still a critical part of any local electoral coalition. That Romney cannot alienate them too much is a challenge faced by moderate Republicans across America. Go too far toward open revolt and you could find yourself dangerously at odds with your own voters.

A similar calculation is bound to be running through Trump's head. Romney is too important and too skilled to dismiss entirely. Trump has always known that he needs Republicans like Mitt to take and hold the White House.

Romney says that in the aftermath of the 2016 election -- during which he accused Trump of "vile degradations" -- he was surprised to receive a phone call from Mike Pence asking him if he'd audition for a senior Cabinet role. Perhaps secretary of state? In the end, says Romney, they just disagreed too much for Romney to accept a job, but not before Romney said Trump was "enlightening, and interesting, and engaging."

In fact their brief flirtation over a table in a three-star Michelin restaurant highlighted how similar they actually are. They're both upper-middle class, both patriotic, both pro-capitalism and both businessman noted for spotting and promoting talent. Trump could see the value of Romney, even if they had violently disagreed in the past. And Trump knows just how much trouble -- or use -- Romney could be to him in the Senate.

Trump has shaken up politics. His own Republican nomination was a surprise; another was that opposing it brought Romney back into the national spotlight. Between them, they represent vastly different approaches to conservatism competing for dominance in the same party, a party that is trying to preserve a fragile governing coalition. If Romney makes it to the Senate, it'll be fascinating to see how these two powerful individuals dance around each other.

And I hope he does make it. America needs to hear a voice of Republican moderation that explicitly rejects prejudice. It also needs an opposition on the Hill that's not the Democrats, whose slide into radical identity politics puts them way beyond the mainstream of many middle-class Americans who don't like Trump but don't see an alternative.

Moreover, Romney deserves a shot at national leadership because history has proven much of what he said in 2012 to be correct. The flaws in Obamacare, the threat of Russia, the dangers of excessive government have come to light.

I wasn't a big fan to begin with -- the guy can be odd -- but he conducted himself throughout that campaign with remarkable tolerance and dignity. Romney is a good man in a political world that has tolerated bad behavior for far too long.

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