Washington • America was, is and will continue to be great.
So said Sen. Mitt Romney on Tuesday in his first Senate address, which dove into the history of the country as it faced challenges and how that spirit would carry on.
There was no mention, by name, of President Donald Trump, no criticism of the administration, no partisan shots. The Utah Republican offered, instead, a way out of the so-called swamp that engulfs Washington.
“Americans turned the tide of two World Wars, overcame a global depression, conquered deadly, debilitating diseases and walked on the surface of the moon,” Romney said.
“We who’ve inherited this incomparably accomplished nation might wonder if we will face challenges as daunting and opportunities as transformational as theirs.”
Each generation faces hardships, he noted, “and we face such decisions today.”
Romney harked back to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in Utah — its 150th anniversary was just last month — as an example of how America tackled an issue that was difficult, costly, deadly — but vitally needed. President Abraham Lincoln signed off on the railroad proposal on the eve of the Civil War.
“The country was divided as never before or since, and the president was preoccupied with preserving the union,” Romney said. “Despite the gathering storm, he had both the foresight to see the impact of a transcontinental railroad and the confidence to believe it could actually be constructed. We Americans are drawn to visionary endeavors, and we rarely lack the confidence needed to undertake them.”
Romney, who stood at his desk in the back rather than take a more prominent spot on the Senate floor, was speaking to the C-SPAN cameras in the room, though several senators flowed into the usually empty chamber to hear his remarks, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his GOP deputies, Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and John Thune of South Dakota. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, also came for the address.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., came up to Romney after to congratulate him on a good speech. A recent news story noted that Romney was in his own lane in the Senate.
“We need you in that lane,” Schumer told him, Romney said.
The Utah senator focused a significant part of his speech on combatting China’s increasing footprint on the world: economically, militarily and politically.
“China might someday experience a discontinuity or another uprising that will change its course,” Romney said. “But barring that, because China’s population is almost four times our size, it’s economy should eventually dwarf ours. And because economic advantage enables military advantage, China’s military could even pass by ours as well.
“It is possible that freedom itself would be in jeopardy. If we fail to act now, that possibility may become reality.”
Romney said after his speech that Trump has been right to combat China on many fronts and that Congress needs to take action. Russia is a threat to the United States, he said, but the one-time superpower is on the decline while China is rising.
Asked why he didn’t mention the president by name, Romney, who has been critical of Trump at times, said it was intentional.
“This is much broader than politics,” Romney told The Salt Lake Tribune. “What I spoke about is hopefully something that will shape the thinking of some other senators and myself about what our priorities have to be.”
Romney said there were no undertones, no hints he was offering. He was only reaching back to his days in the business world where he was a strategic consultant.
“So thinking about long-term strategies, highly comprehensive long-term strategies is something I think we need to do as a nation,” Romney said.
Though Trump was not a focus of Romney's maiden speech in the Senate, there were clearly signs of how Romney views the world versus the president.
While Trump has upended some relationships with America's long-standing allies, Romney says that China's emergence as a powerful potential foe means the United States needs to rely on its friends.
“Alliances are absolutely essential to America’s security, to our future,” Romney said. “I can’t state that more plainly. Our alliances are invaluable, to us and to the cause of freedom. We should strengthen our alliances, not dismiss or begrudge them.”
He also pointed out that immigration is a bonus for America’s future, not a detriment.
“One dimension of American innovation is often underestimated: America is a magnet for the world’s best and the brightest,” Romney said. “They want to come here, not China. Over half of the 25 most valuable high-tech companies in the U.S. were founded by immigrants or their children. It is very much in our national interest to keep attracting the world’s best minds to America.”
Building, innovating, creating, though, won't solve all of America's problems, Romney added, if the country continues to wallow in debt.
“The federal government took in about $3 trillion last year and spent about $4 trillion,” Romney said. “Adding a trillion dollars every year to the debt means that, in 10 years, we will be spending almost as much on interest as we spend on our military. America won’t be strong enough to defend its interests and leadership if it strains under a crippling fiscal burden.”
Romney relished his experience so far in the Senate, despite speculation that he might find it stifling, given his history as a corporate chief executive and governor of Massachusetts.
“I’m humbled by the history that’s been made here, by the character of the patriots whose sculptures adorn the halls, and by the sacrifice made to construct the Capitol of the greatest nation on Earth,” Romney said. “To serve here is to be reminded hourly of the history and greatness of this blessed country.”
Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, may be a junior senator low on the seniority scale, but he commands a strong position as something of an independent voice in the GOP-controlled Senate.
While mostly backing Trump’s agenda and sticking with fellow Republicans on many votes, he has been occasionally critical of the president, including opposing a potential pick for the Federal Reserve. He also joined Democrats to vote against a judicial nominee and, like a growing number of Republicans, he criticized Trump’s threatened tariffs against Mexico.
Romney also said he was “sickened” by special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings and wanted to hear directly from Mueller.
Some expected Romney to serve as a constant Trump foil. During the 2016 campaign he called Trump “a phony, a fraud” and a day before taking office earlier this year he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post that said Trump’s “conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.” But Romney has been far more nuanced, declining on several occasions to side with critics when the president was drawing fire for controversial statements or actions.