News that Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is retiring from the Senate has sparked speculation that 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is going to step in and fill the slot.
Though Romney has not revealed his intentions, it's already triggered a debate over what type of senator he could be, with a lot of the focus being on the sharp criticism he has had for President Trump and Trumpism in general, and the sharp contrast between his general decency and Trump's crudeness. But before we all assume that we know what type of senator Romney may be, it's important to keep in mind that Romney has never demonstrated a clear ideological core, so it's really difficult to know how he'd lead in the role of senator from Utah.
Throughout his political career, Romney has played many roles, and has tended to transform his message based on the electorate he was appealing to at a given time.
In his 1994 Senate race in Massachusetts against Ted Kennedy, Romney presented himself as an "independent during Reagan-Bush" who had been in favor of legal abortion for decades. In 2001, when he was rumored to be a candidate for governor of the conservative state of Utah, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Salt Lake City Tribune in which he declared, "I do not wish to be labeled pro-choice." Yet the following year, he ran for governor of Massachusetts as a protector of abortion rights. Then, in 2005, as he set the stage for his first run for the Republican nomination as a full spectrum conservative, he publicly declared himself to be pro-life. He went on to run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination and attack his GOP opponents for being insufficiently anti-abortion.
Though abortion is among his most famous reversals, it was just one of many issues on which he radically shifted his positions. Effectively, he remade his entire political orientation from race to race, declaring days before the 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial election "I think people recognize that I'm not a partisan Republican — that I'm someone who is moderate and that my views are progressive..." while telling a CPAC audience in 2012 while in a dogfight with Rick Santorum that he was "severely conservative."
Even when it's come to Trump, where Romney has developed a reputation as a leading critic, Romney hasn't been totally consistent. In 2012, he embraced Trump, appearing with him to accept his endorsement, back when Trump was already publicly promoting the birther conspiracy theory. In March 2016, Romney delivered a blistering speech, calling Trump a "phony" and a "fraud." But he was much more conciliatory in November, when he had dinner with President-elect Trump, who had considered him for secretary of state. He has, however, been more critical of Trump as president than most Republicans.
One thing that can be said about Romney is that in his previous career, a lot of his shifts in positions were a function of seeking office in drastically different electorates — liberal Massachusetts and conservative presidential primaries. Also, previously he had demonstrated aspirations to higher office.
In this case, things are a bit different. Were he to run, he'd be doing so in a conservative state where he's very popular and he wouldn't have to shift from where he's been since his last presidential run. Also, at nearly 70, it's unlikely he's realistically gunning for higher office. He ran, lost, and was humbled. If elected, he'd likely be in a safe seat for as long as he wants it. So he doesn't have to come across as that guy who tries too hard — he has the luxury of being much more comfortable in his own skin.
Thus, if he runs, we're much more likely to get the "real" Romney. But it's hard to say for sure who that is or what it means in terms of what type of senator he'd make.