The Senate next year will be more Republican, more-Trumpian, and more likely to genuflect to the White House with the absence of the late Arizona senator John McCain, R-Ariz., as well as less dogmatically pro-Trump Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona. But it doesn’t mean the body is consigned to knee-jerk support of Trump and the amplification of the president’s pro-Russia, pro-tariff, anti-immigrant message. While the Senate will lose Corker and Flake, Mitt Romney of Utah is arriving.
Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts governor, has often disappointed supporters, evidencing a willingness to fall into party orthodoxy and downplay his own heterodoxy (e.g., RomneyCare). Nevertheless, he now has the rare opportunity to be his own man, without an election for six years and with more stature than nearly all his colleagues. (Don’t get me started on the Senate’s devolution from the “world’s greatest deliberative body” to a home for craven Lilliputians.) Moreover, there are some Republicans who really do need to differentiate themselves from President Trump if they have any hope of surviving reelection in 2020. These include Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Susan Collins of Maine and, perhaps, Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Call it the Possibly Sane Caucus.
We don’t expect any of them to start voting for progressive measures (e.g., Medicare-for-all, tax increases), but they could greatly shape the agenda—since their votes will be needed for a simple majority and certainly for any 60-vote cloture. They can force a vote on a bipartisan health-care measure. If this Congress doesn’t act, they could hold up business until a bill to protect the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller gets through. They could do what the last Senate didn’t have the nerve to do, namely claw back Congress’s power over tariffs and end Trump’s senseless trade war. They could—how novel!—reject unqualified, extreme or ethically compromised appointees rather than rubber-stamping everyone whose name is sent up.
Most important, on foreign policy, this group can play an outsize role in repudiating Trump’s value-free foreign policy, as well as his habit of embracing murderous autocrats (for reasons that are not entirely clear). There are a variety of ways they can encourage more effective foreign-policy moves and clip the president’s wings—including passage of a measure to cut off arms sales to the Saudis, a push for more painful sanctions to respond to Russian aggression and a full-court press on the administration to explain how our Afghanistan policy is supposed to success.
They can also reject the president’s dangerous and delusional denial of climate change. Hold hearings on the recently released National Climate Assessment, explore a carbon tax—as former secretary of state George Shultz and others have urged—and develop (wow!) an actual agenda to meet the threat outlined in the assessment.
In other words, Romney can lead this band—and others interested in demonstrating a modicum of independence and intellectual integrity—to push back against the senseless, counterproductive and weak policies that aren’t the least bit conservative. In doing so, they would advance a platform usable by either a possible 2020 primary challenger or conservative independent, as well as perform some intellectual triage on the moribund conservative movement which, these days, seems to stand for policies it then must abandon in election years.
Sure, prepare to be disappointed. However, what is Romney waiting for? He finally has the freedom to exercise some muscle (in a still closely divided Senate) and practice his brand of center-right, pragmatic governance that made him a success as a governor. What a waste it would be to have run for the Senate at this stage in his life and not to use the opportunity for courageous, creative legislating.