Which Mitt Romney would serve in the Senate?

President-elect Donald Trump, center, eats dinner with Mitt Romney, right, and Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus at Jean-Georges restaurant, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, in New York.

President-elect Donald Trump, center, eats dinner with Mitt Romney, right, and Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus at Jean-Georges restaurant, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

When word spread yesterday that Trump toady Orrin Hatch was exiting the U.S. Senate, clearing the field in Utah for a resurgent Mitt Romney, I instantly flashed to a speech Mitt made back in March ’16:

“Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the members of the American public for suckers … He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.”

Mitt’s assessment is obviously truer today than it was then. It’s certainly more accurate than Hatch’s recent effusions as he bent a knee to his master: “You’re one heck of a leader.” Hatch extolled Trump as  a man “I love and appreciate so much,” a man who might have “the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations but maybe ever.”

No wonder Trump begged Hatch to seek re-election in 2018. The last thing he wanted was to lose an obsequious flatterer — and to see him replaced by someone who knows Trump for what he is, someone who has the standing to rally all the remaining Republicans who refuse to drink from the demagogue’s goblet.

Romney has roots in Utah, and he’s well positioned to seek the seat; with his universal name ID and a fundraising network that he’s nurtured since losing the ’12 presidential race, he’s basically a slam dunk in the red state. In a closely divided Senate, he could be an independent swing vote. According to center-right columnist and longtime Mitt booster Jennifer Rubin, he’d arrive in the Senate “with instantaneous gravitas on a range of issues … a personal and political threat to the president.” He could give the supine Republicans a sorely needed moral compass. He could easily serve as Trump’s most persistent nemesis.

Unless he doesn’t. We’re talking here about Mitt Romney, whose core convictions have often proved to be quite fungible. He can make a weathervane look like the Rock of Gibraltar.

The guy who called Trump a fraud in March ’16 is the same guy who welcomed Trump’s endorsement in February ’12, calling it “a delight,” declaring himself “so honored and pleased.”

The guy who assailed Trump’s business record in March ’16 (“His bankruptcies have crushed small businesses and the men and women who work for them … A business genius he is not”) is the same guy who extolled Trump’s business record in February ’12 (“Donald Trump has shown an extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works to create jobs for the American people. He’s done it here in Nevada. He’s done it across the country … I spent my life in the private sector. Not quite as successful as this guy”).

On paper, Romney would have lots of flex to speak truth to Trump — as he did last summer when he rebuked Trump for saying there were some nice Nazi marchers in Charlottesville — because Utah, with its sizable Mormon population, is not a Trump stronghold. Trump won Utah in ’16 with only 45 percent of the vote. But even though Utah’s mood would give Mitt room to maneuver, he’s by nature cautious and methodical and thus not likely to go out of his way to antagonize the national Republican base, which still inexplicably thinks Trump walks on water. And the base thinks Mitt is a squish and a loser who saddled America with four extra years of Obama.

He’d clearly be an improvement over Hatch; as George Pyle, the editorial page editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, recently remarked, at least with Mitt “we would be spared the embarrassment of his sucking up to the president.” He would likely criticize Trump in public, at least often enough to draw Trump’s twittered ire (in March ’16, Trump mocked Mitt as “awkward and goofy”), and perhaps that would briefly divert Trump from saber-rattling for nuclear war with North Korea.

On balance, however, what we’ll likely get is a senator in the Jeff Flake/Ben Sasse mold — all talk and no action. Someone who will say stuff that sounds good and suggests a moral pulse, but someone likely to vote in lockstep for ruinous Republican bills that Trump will trumpet as wins for him. Would Mitt have voted No on the plutocratic Republican tax measure — the guy who falsely maligned the underprivileged “47 percent” as irresponsible slackers? Like Hatch, he’d have said Yes.

But Mitt and the Republicans are entitled to pursue their conservative policies. At this crucial moment for America, the core fight is not about ideology. It’s about moral character, and the unfit president’s lack thereof. It’s about his burgeoning autocratic impulses, and the clear and present danger he poses to international peace. More sane voices are sorely needed, and if the Mitt of March ’16 shows up, all the better. We’ll take all help we can get.

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