Sen.-elect Mitt Romney, R-Utah, we presume, didn’t wade back into politics, run a Senate campaign and agree to serve for six years just to go-along-to-get-along in a body devoid of leadership. He’s a former governor, a former presidential nominee, a successful businessman and the savior of the Salt Lake Olympics, for goodness’ sake. He has heft, experience and the respect of his peers. If he simply becomes another keep-our-head-down Republican, he’ll be no different than the other GOP placeholders who think their job is to do what President Donald Trump and/or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tell them to do.
Being ornery for the sake of being ornery isn’t of value, but reminding fellow senators of their obligation to the Constitution and their constituents, imploring them to rebut Trump’s lies and finding ways to form a governing majority to pass legislation through both houses would be invaluable. The Senate has a principle, sanity and gravitas deficit created by the passing of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and enlarged by the retirements of Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. Romney is the ideal person to fill that void — perhaps the only one who can. But he doesn’t have to operate solo.
A cadre of Republican in unsafe seats up for re-election in 2020 — Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine — can be enlisted in an effort to return normalcy to the Senate and to the presidency. So far too timid to check Trump but still politically sensible is a larger group of Republican senators who would, I think, follow Romney’s lead, provided they had political cover and company (e.g. Rob Portman of Ohio, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania). Finally, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a dealmaking moderate who won’t be running for re-election, may feel emboldened to make his final two years in office legacy-defining.
Democrats should not expect them to repeal tax cuts or adopt progressive positions, but they can do two main things: Look for bipartisan agreements on distinct issues with moderate Democrats, and restore stability and constitutional governance.
In the first category, the Romney Retinue should, for example, reach out to Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who at a recent appearance in Northern Virginia supported the idea of removing all subsidies on energy. What could be more Republican than getting government out of the business of choosing economic winners and losers? Likewise, there are Democrats who would join in reclaiming Congress’ power on tariffs.
In the governance category, Romney can make a meaningful contribution in two ways. First, when the Democratic House sends over a clean continuing resolution to reopen the government, this group should insist that the clean CR — the very same measure the Senate voted for already — gets an up-or-down vote. If Trump wants to veto it, so be it; the first branch of government then can consider overriding him. Congressional Republicans must stop playing mother-may-I with a president as irrational and incompetent as this one.
Maybe the most critical task for Romney and any allies concerns confirmation hearings. We have the least impressive Cabinet, of either party, in my lifetime — operating with acting Cabinet members (at the Interior, Justice and Defense departments and the Environmental Protection Agency), scandal-ridden billionaires, empty suits who lack stature (e.g., Steven Mnuchin), reviled incompetents (Kirstjen Nielsen) and Trump lackeys (Mike Pompeo). In the major posts and among White House advisers, not a single “adult in the room” can be found. The Senate can exercise oversight over those already there, but its most critical task is preventing more incompetent, scandal-plagued empty suits and lackeys from joining the administration.
Romney should implore his colleagues to reject the blatantly unqualified, such as Heather Nauert (former Fox New personality) for ambassador to the United Nations. The next secretary of defense must have military, counterterrorism and/or foreign policy experience. For those nominees of some stature, most especially Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William P. Barr, confirmation should be conditional on their commitments to the Senate. Barr must vow, as did Elliot Richardson before the Saturday Night Massacre, not to replace or impede the special counsel. He must report to the Senate any attempts by the White House to pressure him or other officials to lay off Trump’s associates, and reiterate that a president does not enjoy the power to obstruct justice.
Romney will play a critical role in the next two years — whether or not he chooses to lead. If the latter, he’ll virtually ensure the administration’s descent into chaos and corruption; if the former, he has a chance to begin his party’s revival, contain a lawless president, and prevent domestic and international calamities. Really, all he need do is fulfill his oath of office and persuade a critical mass of colleagues to do the same. Never has so little from so few been so important.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.