September 19th, 2020


As Utah Goes, So Goes . . . Perhaps A Lot of Republican Drama In 2018 And Beyond

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published Dec. 12, 2017

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and President Trump.

Here's something peculiar about modern presidential politics: longevity.

In January, America marked the end of a third consecutive two-term presidency. The only other time that's happened in the republic's history: the 24-year stretch of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe in the first quarter of the 19th Century.

It's presidential longevity in terms of both of time in office and time on this planet.

Of the six individuals who've won the past ten national elections, only Ronald Reagan is no longer with us. Meanwhile, all ten candidates who lost those elections are still alive.

Presidential historians should embrace it while they can.

In January, Walter Mondale joins Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush (both born in 1924) in a rather exclusive club of ex-nominee nonagenarians. Bob Dole (born in 1923) is also a member. Michael Dukakis, who recently turned 84, is still a few years away. So is John McCain, who turns 82 in August but is battling an aggressive brain tumor.

The pups in this litter? John Kerry celebrates his 74th birthday this week. Also in that age range: Hillary Clinton (she turned 70 soon before losing the November election), Al Gore (he'll be 70 next March) and Mitt Romney (he'll celebrate his 71st birthday about three weeks before Gore blows out the candles -- that is, if a lit birthday cake doesn't contribute to global warming).

Of this group, it's Romney who fascinates.

For openers, he may do something rare in American presidential politics -- a party's former nominee getting back in the game by running for something other than the top job in the land. John Quincy Adams did it; he served as a Massachusetts congressman not long after Andrew Jackson brought an abrupt halt to Adams' one term as the country's 6th president. Otherwise, party nominees tend to recede into the shadows.

That's not the case if Romney ends up running for Orrin Hatch's seat, should the longtime Utah Republican senator call it a career. Which is another twist in Romney's career: different state (not Massachusetts), different office (not governor).

Would Romney win? The primary might contain some fireworks (more on that in a moment). However, Utah hasn't sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since Frank Moss's re-election in 1970. Hatch evicted Moss from office in 1976 -- ironically, given that Hatch is wrapping up his seventh Senate term, Hatch made Senate over-stay an issue (Hatch's line of attack: "What do you call a Senator who's served in office for 18 years? You call him home.")

What also intrigues about Romney ending up in Washington (though not the way he intended back in 2012): whether he ends up as the receptacle for the GOP's anti-Trump energy; the tip of the spear for intraparty criticism and second-guessing.

Here, the story gets complicated -- and, at times, ugly.

In March 2016, Romney gave a high-profile speech in New York City in which he lamented the Republicans' nominating process (here's the transcript). Romney didn't offer himself as a candidate, nor did he offer an endorsement. But he did light into Trump, calling the eventual nominee "a con man, a fake" and predicting a Trump victory would lead to a recession at home and chaos abroad. Here's Trump's . . . well, Trumpian response.

Fast forward to 2017 and the possibility of Romney replacing Hatch in the Senate. The possibilities:

Trump does his best to convince the 83-year-old Hatch to go for an eight term (or so was the speculation when Hatch deplaned from Air Force One in Salt Lake City, alongside the president, earlier this month. Trump said he hoped Hatch would stay in the Senate "for a very long time" (though he also called Romney "a good man).

Hatch announces his retirement, Romney jumps into the race -- and Steve Bannon parachutes into Utah. Perhaps you caught Bannon's speech this past week in which he bashed Romney (and sons) for lack of military service (Romney had weighed in on the Alabama Senate race, calling Roy Moore "a stain" on the GOP). A Bannon-fueled candidate would look a lot like other Republican Senate primary in the likes of Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee next year. Only, as Bannon demonstrated in those Alabama remarks, he's willing to make the attack extraordinarily personal.

And should Romney go to Washington as Utah's next senator?

The guess here is he steps into McCain's role -- a former nominee with a national following and a network of political and policy advisors, willing to call out the president's behavior and policy choices, one state's senator and one faction's media surrogate.

Which would delight Never-Trumpers, enrage Ever-Trumpers, and leave a lot of Republicans confused as to the rules of engagement between a sitting president and congressional members of his party.

This isn't exactly a new dynamic in Washington. McCain wasn't a wallflower in the early days of the Bush 43 presidency (six months into the Bush presidency, McCain went after his rival on climate change). In retrospect, Barack Obama looks wiser for absorbing Hillary Clinton into his cabinet and thus not having her taking potshots from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Romney likewise would not be a wallflower. Depending how far he's willing to push the envelope, he could set up something of a Republican shadow government in Washington -- a one-office think tank offering a less edgy Republican vision and a lot of static in Trump's ear.

In a state with some colorful town names -- Hideout, Tropic, Virgin -- there is no Dullsville.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: "The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain." During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.