Lawrence J. Leigh: A tale of two Utah senators

Parallels in the lives of Mike Lee and Mitt Romney.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Newly elected Senator Mitt Romney, center, attends funeral services for Maj. Brent R. Taylor, alongside Sen. Mike Lee and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox at Weber State University's Dee Event Center in Ogden, Utah on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. Taylor, 39, the mayor of North Ogden, died Nov. 3, 2018, while serving in Afghanistan.

There are uncanny parallels in the lives of Utah’s two U.S. senators, Mitt Romney and Mike Lee.
Both had famous fathers. Mitt is George Romney’s son. George, the Republican governor of Michigan in the 1960s, stumbled in 1968 as a presidential candidate by criticizing the Vietnam War too soon and advocating forcefully for civil rights.
Mike is Rex Lee’s son. Rex purportedly resigned as solicitor general of the United States under President Ronald Reagan as criticism grew that he was not conservative enough. Rex later became the president of Brigham Young University.
Both men had success before the Senate. Mitt founded Bain Capital, a multimillion-dollar private equity investment firm, managed Salt Lake City’s successful 2002 Winter Olympics, and became the governor of Massachusetts, signing into law the Massachusetts version of Obamacare. Romney lost to Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election, prompting President Donald Trump’s derisive epithet “loser.” In 2018, Utahns chose Romney anyway to fill Sen. Orrin Hatch’s former seat.
Meanwhile, buoyed by his famous family name, Mike slipped seamlessly into government legal jobs where he must have tried numerous famous cases (unfortunately, none come to mind right now). During a short stint in private practice, Mike battled for an energy company’s right to store radioactive waste in Utah’ desert. Mike became a senator in 2010, toppling the respected Bob Bennett, one of a vanishing band of Republicans who reach across the aisle to Democrats. Mike wants to be president someday, but he will have to get to the back of the line behind said Trump, et al.
Mitt and Mike distinguished themselves as senators. Arriving in the Senate, Mitt discovered that today’s senators duck important votes most of the time. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader — aka the “Grim Reaper” — relieves senators of that onerous task by sitting on bills where a wrong vote might doom a Republican senator’s chances for reelection, leaving senators free to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for legislative gridlock.
Unfazed, Mitt embarked on the perilous course of serving as the loyal opposition to Trump. Like the outnumbered patriots during the American Revolution who bushwhacked marching British redcoats, almost alone, Mitt fought a rear-guard action against Trump, selectively choosing his times and places to blast the worst of Trump’s misdeeds. Mitt’s most notorious act came when he voted to impeach Trump for obstruction of justice.

Initially, Mike, like Mitt, opposed Trump. Before Trump was nominated in 2016, Lee was a “Never Trumper”— until he stuck his finger to the wind. Sensing danger, Mike reversed course and ended up in the forefront of Trump defenders. Known as “Mr. Constitution” by other senators, Mike used his legal skills to alert senators to constitutional violations. Alas, he is stricken with constitutional leftopia, an affliction causing near blindness to constitutional issues on the left side of the political spectrum.
Mike’s signature legislative achievement came as co-drafter of a criminal justice reform bill improving rehabilitation programs for released offenders and permitting more lenient sentencing for nonviolent offenders. Trump also supported the bill. The president, a charter member of the throw-away-the key-school, underwent a foxhole conversion on leniency for nonviolent offenders after observing prosecutors circling like so many raptors over himself and his White House gang.
Mike’s efforts amounted to a rare legislative triple lutz, righteous legislation without incurring any incoming from right, left or Trump.
Once Joe Biden emerged as the apparent election winner, Mitt congratulated him on his victory. Conversely, Mike, in lockstep with most Republican politicians, twisted and flapped like a fish on a hook.
When Mitt someday looks back on his Senate career, he will remain secure in his belief that when his time on earth ends, George will greet him and say, “Well done, Mitt. You did not make president. But you made me proud.”
When Mike similarly looks back, he will sleep easy knowing that at Trump’s last stand, with Democrats closing in, and rats leaving the ship, he stood at Armageddon, and battled for the Donald.

Lawrence J. Leigh

Lawrence J. Leigh has a doctorate in government from the University of Arizona. He once taught political science at Weber State University and is a former assistant U.S. attorney for Utah and Northern California.
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