The Romney Gambit

John Angelillo/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

President-elect Donald Trump sits at a table with former Governor Mitt Romney at Jean Georges Restaurant on November 29, 2016 in New York City. 

There are denizens of Planet Media who have worked themselves into a state of high dudgeon over the prospect of Mitt Romney serving as secretary of state in the Trump administration. In these tellings, Romney is either a sellout, a hypocrite, or a suck-up. (Or a flip flopper or a shapeshifter, to use terms in vogue during his two failed presidential bids.) The underlying sentiment seems to be: Why would Romney want to work for a man he repeatedly denigrated during a toxic election, who was more than happy to match him insult for insult, and who may be setting him up for a major fall?

But being shocked, shocked that Romney wants to set aside his reservations about Trump to serve in his administration ignores the arc of Romney’s career. There is nothing surprising about the former Massachusetts governor’s decision to pursue the State Department post.

In Romney’s worldview, political pragmatism means that any conflict or inconsistency with previous statements or ideological positions, on any given subject, can be cast aside. When a decision has to be made to pursue a particular course of action, Romney invariably makes the politically expedient choice. This is how Romney moves from labeling Donald Trump “a phony” and “a fraud” whose “foreign policies would make America and the world less safe” to “I had a wonderful evening with president-elect Trump.”

This is vintage Mitt Romney.

Like the president-elect, Romney pivots and adapts. When he first entered state politics, taking on Ted Kennedy in a 1994 Senate bid, he declared that he was pro-choice; so pro-choice that he was more pro-choice than Kennedy, that stance being a price of admission to Massachusetts politics. Romney made Kennedy work hard during the campaign, but the late Bay State legend ended up delivering Romney a sound beatdown. The two men traded their fair share of insults during the campaign. But more than a decade later, after Romney became governor, they glad-handed in Boston as Romney signed the historic Massachusetts health-care reform law.

Romney became the face of the plan. Yet he went public with his proposal only after it was clear that state legislative leaders were ready to heed federal officials’ demands that the state rein its high health-care costs or forfeit its Medicaid dollars. In late 2004, Democratic Senate President Robert Travaglini had announced that he planned tackle the issue, and by the following spring he had proposed legislation. Shortly after that bill’s introduction, Romney released his own legislation. Then the Massachusetts Speaker of the House, Democrat Sal DiMasi, delivered a third plan. In the end, the final law drew from all three proposals.  

Later, when Romney was accused of backing the reforms to polish his presidential bona fides, he disowned the whole effort. Though the Massachusetts health-care overhaul had been his signature political achievement, Romney denied during his 2012 presidential bid that Romneycare had served as a model for Obamacare. Still later, Romney embraced the Massachusetts law yet again, admitting that it had, indeed, been the Obamacare template.

Romney had similarly tied himself up in knots when vying with Senator John McCain for the Republican nomination in 2008. In that instance, Romney realigned his views on a host of issues from citizenship for undocumented people and climate change to same-sex marriage. In 2008, as in 2012, Romney found himself tacking to the right during the primary season only to veer hard to the middle during the general election campaign. In his final White House bid, Romney finally self-destructed with the release of his private comments about the 47 percent of the people who would vote for Obama “no matter what.”

Fast forward to 2016. In this bitter presidential campaign, Romney was practically the last man standing in the #NeverTrump camp, one of the few national Republican leaders to remain there consistently. Trump was happy to unleash a round of insults against the man he had once supported for president.

But now, the two seem to be getting along famously. After all, shaking hands with foes who have vanquished him is one of the things Romney does best.

Will this Romney trial balloon crash and burn somewhere along the Hudson River, or soar straight into the State Department? Reportedly, his nomination has set off an internal civil war in the Trump camp—a place where backbiting and disinformation rule. If Romney does emerge as Trump’s pick, the next big question will be what sort of role Romney, a man whose international affairs expertise is limited to the Olympics, would play in a Trump administration?

Would Romney command respect on the international stage like his immediate predecessor, John Kerry, another former Massachusetts politician? Could he transform himself from Trump’s campaign-trail nemesis into a trusted confidant, as Hillary Clinton did with Barack Obama? Or would Romney suffer the fate of William Rogers, Richard Nixon’s first secretary of state? Rogers was outmaneuvered and eventually replaced by Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s de facto secretary of state and national security adviser. Romney has more to offer Trump than the widely disliked Rudolph Giuliani, who has yet to demonstrate any talent for diplomacy, or than Obama’s former CIA director, retired Army General David Petraeus, currently on probation for his improper handling of classified documents. Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, Capitol Hill’s favorite, is also on the short list.

Romney may look the part, evidently a key facet of his appeal to Trump, yet whether Romney can actually play the part in a cabinet that’s starting to look like the court of the Medici is reason enough for skepticism. He would come to the table as a comparatively inexperienced civilian flanked by two extremely hawkish retired military officers, Army Lt. Gen Michael Flynn (national security adviser) and Marine Gen. James Mattis (defense secretary).

Romney’s pliability in domestic affairs is no mystery. What is unknown is whether the changeable Romney can steer the country through the Scylla of Team Trump’s ferocious amateurism, and the Charybdis of this perilous moment in international politics.

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