Dana Milbank: America needs you, Mitt Romney

The nation’s fate depends on previously upstanding public servants such as Hatch insisting on some semblance of decency.

Mitt Romney: Your country needs you.

The 2012 Republican presidential nominee has been reluctant to announce a primary challenge to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the longest-serving Republican senator in history. But America needs Romney to step up, to restore dignity to the Senate — and to save the country from the embarrassment Hatch has become.

Hatch, long the picture of conservative rectitude, was once a conscientious legislator, even partnering with Ted Kennedy when he thought poor kids were getting a raw deal. But Hatch, the Senate president pro tempore, has undergone a grotesque transformation this year, his 84th on earth and 42nd in the Senate. He has become chief enabler of and cheerleader for President Trump.

“You’re one heck of a leader,” Hatch gushed to Trump on the White House lawn this month, hailing “all the things that he’s been able to get done -- by sheer will, in many ways.” Hatch, declaring Trump a man “I love and appreciate so much,” urged his colleagues to “get behind him every way we can” and vowed: “We’re going to make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever.”

Yep, that’s Trump: topping not just Ronald Reagan but Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

And Hatch wants colleagues to “get behind him in every way we can.” That would include backing Trump’s defense of white supremacists, his vulgar tweets, his endless attacks on the rule of law and the institutions of democracy, and, yes, his embrace of a credibly accused child molester for the Senate. Hatch, after enjoying a ride on Air Force One this month, excused Trump’s endorsement of Roy Moore and said the alleged offenses “were decades ago.”

Trump will be Trump, and that won’t change. The nation’s fate depends on previously upstanding public servants such as Hatch insisting on some semblance of decency.

Hatch’s hometown Salt Lake Tribune called last this week for Hatch to step aside, citing “his utter lack of integrity that rises from his unquenchable thirst for power.” Hatch, who saw that the paper had named him “Utahn of the Year” but apparently missed the explanatory editorial, tweeted that he was “grateful for this great Christmas honor.”

The paper’s editorial page editor, George Pyle, cited the tax cut Hatch authored and other policy differences. But his problem with Hatch was more one of character. Romney would vote the way Hatch does most of the time, Pyle told MSNBC, but with Romney, “We would be spared the embarrassment of his sucking up to the president.”

Exactly. This isn’t about ideology. The trouble is Hatch’s slavish devotion to Trump, kowtowing even when the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan express misgivings. Yes, Romney briefly had kind words for Trump when Trump was considering him for secretary of state. But Hatch’s nonstop adulation of Trump legitimizes the president’s vulgarity and attacks on democratic institutions.

Consider Hatch’s applause for Matthew Petersen, one of three Trump judicial nominees who withdrew this month amid doubts about their credentials. The patently unqualified Petersen, who has never prosecuted or defended a case, was humiliated during questioning by Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., who exposed his ignorance of basic courtroom procedures. And Hatch? He scolded his fellow Judiciary Committee members for being “unfair.”

Contrast that with Hatch’s silence last year when Todd Edelman, nominated to the same seat as Petersen in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, waited eight months without even getting a hearing -- an insult endured by many nominees, right on up to Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. Edelman, whom I first met in college years ago, had spent six years presiding over some 400 cases as a judge on the D.C. Superior Court, served eight years as a public defender and taught law at Georgetown.

Hatch for many years has been the compassionate champion of the CHIP health-care program for poor kids and the importance of legislating protections for the “dreamers,” immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. But those sensibilities faded in the Trump era.

The lapsed CHIP program now hangs by a thread, and while Hatch says he favors renewing the program, he frets that “we don’t have money anymore.” This as he helped push through a $1.5 trillion tax cut paid for with debt. And the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for dreamers? He urged Trump not to end the program, and when the administration set in motion plans to do just that, Hatch didn’t join GOP Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s bipartisan effort to codify it, instead signing on to a GOP-only alternative.

Hatch was preparing to retire, but Trump pushed him to go back on his promise not to seek another term. Trump obviously prefers the obsequious Hatch to Romney, who, though as conservative as Hatch, would be no puppet. That’s why Mitt must run.

Dana Milbank