Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has been coming under fire from many fellow Republicans for his New Year’s Day op-ed for the Washington Post. In the piece, the former Massachusetts governor and 2008/2012 presidential candidate agreed with President Donald Trump in some areas but was highly critical of him over foreign policy, his temperament and the recent departures of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly — and everyone from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel (Romney’s niece) is furious with him.
But Romney’s op-ed has drawn the praise of Never Trump conservatives like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. And by declaring that he won’t hesitate to call Trump out when he feels it’s appropriate, Romney has underscored his ability to fluctuate between far-right ideologue and relatively sane conservative.
How far to the right Romney has gone over the years has had a lot to do with where he was running for office and who he was hoping to reach. Romney’s less extreme side asserted itself in 1994, when he challenged the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts and portrayed himself as a Rockefeller Republican. Although Romney lost by 17% and Kennedy was reelected to the Senate, his Rockefeller Republican image served him well when he ran for governor in Massachusetts in 2002 and won.
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney was conservative-leaning but not extreme. He was pro-choice on abortion, and his program for universal health care in that state underscores the Republican influence on the Affordable Care Act of 2010, a.k.a. Obamacare. The individual mandate that was part of the ACA before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 eliminated it was right out of Romneycare; truth be told, Obamacare was Romneycare applied nationwide.
That was the old Mitt Romney: a northeastern Republican who wasn’t obsessed with shredding every last trace of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. But Romney moved way to the right when he ran for president in 2008 and 2012. Romney flip-flopped on abortion, pledged his allegiance to the Christian Right and the anti-choice movement and railed against universal health care.
Romney campaigned on overturning the ACA in 2012, when he received the GOP presidential nomination but lost to President Barack Obama in the general election. Never mind the fact that Romneycare, along with proposals by the Heritage Foundation and President Richard Nixon, had a major influence on Obamacare—Romney had to pander to the extremists in his party. Even so, there is a widely held belief in Tea Party and Trumpista circles that Romney isn’t conservative enough.
It’s no coincidence that when Romney ran for the Senate in the 2018 midterms, he did so via Utah rather than Massachusetts. Had he challenged Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts — where she is wildly popular — Romney probably would have lost (Warren was reelected by a landslide last year). But Utah is much more conservative than Massachusetts, and Romney defeated Democrat Jenny Wilson (a city councilwoman in Salt Lake City) by about 28%.
That Utah Senate seat was held by Orrin Hatch for many years before he announced his retirement. In 2018, Romney ran a much more right-wing campaign against Wilson than he ran against Ted Kennedy in 1994, but judging from his New Year’s Day op-ed, he doesn’t feel obligated to worship Trump’s every move.
Romney has done more than his share of flip-flopping over the years. With former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s departure, Romney appears to be positioning himself as the southwestern senator who is hard-right but not a subservient Trumpista—no matter how much Trump supporters might hate him for it.
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