Mitt Romney’s life presents a confounding mix of opportunism and principles, making his actions difficult to understand.
Against huge opposition, he provided health care to lower-income people when he was governor of Massachusetts, but then opposed President Barack Obama’s nearly identical Affordable Care Act.
He supported a woman’s right to choose when he ran against Ted Kennedy for senator in Massachusetts, but staunchly opposed abortion when he sought the presidency.
Last March, in a lengthy speech, he gambled every ounce of political credibility he had in trying to stop Donald Trump from winning the Republican presidential nomination, condemning “the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics.”
Now, days after the two men enjoyed a cordial meeting, we are all waiting to hear whether Mr. Trump will nominate Mr. Romney to become secretary of state.
That nomination is by no means assured; former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has been the most loyal of lieutenants, wants the job. And there could be surprises. But the fact Mr. Romney’s name is even on the short list is remarkable – given the words above.
Is this simply another example of rank Romney opportunism, of a man willing to debase his principles in pursuit of power? Or is it a dutiful response of a statesman answering his president’s call to serve?
“It’s a question that probably only Mitt Romney can answer,” replies Jordan Tama, a political scientist at American University in Washington. “My guess is it’s a bit of both.”
Regardless of motive, however, Mr. Romney as secretary of state would be welcomed in capitals from Berlin to Beijing.
“He would be a moderating influence,” says Michael Traugott, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Michigan, “and that would be to the good.”
Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly demonstrated the thinness of his skin (“Not nice!” “Sad!”), nonetheless appears to favour a team-of-rivals approach to cabinet making. On Wednesday, he nominated South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to be his ambassador to the United Nations. Ms. Haley was almost as vocal as Mr. Romney in her opposition to Mr. Trump as the Republican presidential nominee. And he chose charter school advocate Betsy DeVos, who backed Trump rivals Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush and, ultimately, Marco Rubio during the nomination campaign, to be his education secretary.
Ideologically, Mr. Romney would share some of Mr. Trump’s priorities and oppose others. Both men are suspicious of Chinese power, although Mr. Romney focuses on the geopolitical challenges and Mr. Trump on the economic. And both are hawkish in confronting Islamist terrorist threats to the United States and in containing Iran’s influence.
But both differ on many key issues: Mr. Romney is a free-trader; Mr. Trump is protectionist. Mr. Romney embraces America’s traditional alliances, including NATO; Mr. Trump is more skeptical. In the 2012 campaign, Mr. Romney repeatedly described Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe,” while Mr. Trump is much warmer toward President Vladimir Putin.
In that sense, Mr. Romney’s appointment could signal a welcome commitment to continuity in U.S. foreign policy. But it might also leave the secretary of state at odds with his president. Such disagreements usually end badly for the secretary of state: William Rogers versus Richard Nixon; Colin Powell versus George W. Bush.
But Mr. Romney would know going in that Mr. Trump often shoots from the lip. (“Many people would like to see @Nigel_Farage represent Great Britain as their Ambassador to the United States. He would do a great job!”)
“I’m sure Romney would realize that Trump is going to do things like that and he’s going to have to clean up the mess,” Prof. Tama says. But the former governor of Massachusetts might consider it worth the risk in order to play a moderating influence on the new president.
In any event, Prof. Traugott says, we have no idea how Mr. Trump will govern because he has no experience in government. “There are questions about whether Trump will change his mind as he becomes more involved and gets deeper into his intelligence briefings.”
If Tuesday’s Q&A with The New York Times is any indication – the president-elect said he was now willing to consider the possibility of climate change as real, he retreated from threats to toughen libel laws and he announced that his administration would not pursue a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton – Mr. Trump may have a broader and deeper streak of pragmatism than his critics fear.
Will he also soften his foreign policy position once he becomes better acquainted with the issues? Having Mr. Romney in the room, perhaps in tandem with Ms. Haley, would certainly help.
In his personal life, Mr. Romney has crafted a harmonious triad of family, faith and finance. Raised a Mormon, he spent 2 1/2 years as a missionary in France (if he followed John Kerry, the U.S. would have two consecutive secretaries of state who spoke French) and has remained active in the church ever since. He married his high-school sweetheart, Ann Davies, and the couple spends much of their time visiting their five children and vast brood of grandchildren.
After joining the financial management firm Bain & Co. in 1977, he rose, rescued, spun off, co-founded and generally grew rich, amassing a fortune estimated at as much as $250-million (which would barely earn him an ante at Donald Trump’s table).
But like his father, George, an auto executive who was governor of Michigan and who unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination, politics seduced him. Initially an independent, then a Democrat, Mr. Romney changed his affiliation to Republican in the aforementioned, futile effort to unseat Mr. Kennedy.
He had better luck at the state level, becoming governor of Massachusetts in 2003, riding the wave of his successful rescue of the foundering Salt Lake City Winter Games. Then he turned once again to the federal arena, with an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for president in 2008 and a successful run in 2012, only to meet defeat at the hands of Mr. Obama.
After that defeat, Mr. Romney kept a low profile until this year’s unsuccessful effort to stop Mr. Trump. Now he has re-emerged in a potential new role. It could all end in tears and resignation, but maybe not. After all, Mr. Romney could still be thinking about the long game.
“It’s possible that Romney still has future political aspirations,” says Prof. Tama, “and recognizes that patching things up with Donald Trump, who’s now leader of the Republican Party, could be helpful for his political future.”
Being in your 70s no longer disqualifies you for a run at the presidency. And Mr. Romney is 69.