Listen, kiddos, Mitt Romney is many things — too many things — but he was never anything but good clickbait.
A week ago, The Tribune’s Sunday opinion section was led by an op-ed contributed by the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Utah. It was sold, to The Tribune and to its readers, as an answer to a key question before the voters: “Where I stand on the Trump agenda.”
The lead was pretty good:
“One of the questions I am asked frequently on the campaign trail is whether as Senator I will support the Trump agenda. I’ve learned this means different things to different people. That difference, I believe, is a defining choice for Republicans.”
Sadly, the rest of the piece was a wibbly-wobbly, flippy-floppy ball of Mitt.
Basically, Romney took 700 words to say that he would support the president when he thought he was right, not support him when he thought he was wrong and call him out when he thought he had stepped over the line.
That’s a statement of principle that should be standard issue for any member of Congress. Everyone from John Quincy Adams to Henry Clay to Tip O’Neill probably thought that. If they ever bothered to say it out loud it probably would draw little attention. Thanks, Captain Obvious.
It’s only because we live in such polarized times that a smart politician would feel the need to say such a thing in such a space. And, rather than being ignored, the piece was quickly picked up and tossed around the internet.
Reporters and pundits quoted, discussed, elaborated upon, dissed and, to their credit, linked to Romney’s commentary. Whatever the Utah electorate may have thought of it, the national media wasn’t very impressed. And, like everyone else, had to look very closely at this set of chicken entrails to figure out what Mitt was saying:
“Voters in Utah and elsewhere are right to worry that Romney will let far too much slide for the sake of comity and will become another enabler, albeit a less slavish one than his Republican colleagues.“ — “When will Mitt Romney speak out about Trump?” — Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post
“Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney pledged Sunday to be an independent voice within the Republican Party if he is elected and to speak his mind, good or bad, about President Donald Trump. — “Romney vows to speak out against Trump if elected” — Louis Nelson, Politico
“In other words, Romney supports Trump’s agenda — except when it’s really really, bad, and then he will say something.” — “Mitt Romney is now just like every other Republican: he’s with Trump for the tax cuts” — Tara Golshan, Vox
“Romney proved in Massachusetts and later around the rest of the country that he can twist and turn and flip and flop to fit the political mold that gives him the best chance to win.” — “Senate may see all sides of Mitt Romney” — Joe Battenfeld, The Boston Herald
“On the Senate campaign trail, a Utah voter tries to give Mitt Romney a handful of re-elect Donald Trump buttons. ‘You can give them to me. I’m not going to put them on because I haven’t decided who I’ll support yet. It’s a little early,’ he says with a thank you and a chuckle. Take the Trump button but don’t put it on — a simple moment that sums up a complex situation for the former Republican presidential nominee.“ — “Mitt Romney is running for Senate as a friend and foe of Donald Trump” — Dana Bash and Bridget Nolen, CNN
Just about all the reporting and commentary recalled the big flip between Romney’s 2016 #NeverTrump “phony and fraud” speech, the most thundering and widely reported of the genre, and his 2017 bow and scrape job interview with the president-elect.
Now it is all a question of why. Why is a man with such an impressive resume, name recognition, bank account and big lead in the polls still so acquiescent to the simpleton at 1600?
How can he say he will keep his powder dry except, “when the president says or does something which is divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions,” when that’s about all this president does?
The issue of our time, and most certainly of this election, is, Are you in the president’s camp or not?
It is, as Romney himself pointed out, not just the TV pundits who want to know.
The fact that a savvy politician such as Mitt Romney is going into all kinds of contortions to avoid really answering that question, when a firm no would make him a national hero, suggests that he’s not that savvy. Or that we live in dangerous times.
George Pyle, The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial page editor, has been known to flip on really important questions. Like which actor was the best Batman.