If Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is anything right now, it’s pragmatic, which means he recognizes that sometimes half a glass is better than nothing at all.
In today’s world, where vowing to smash the glass is good for fundraising and reelection campaigns, it also can be an existential threat to political careers.
Which brings us to the infrastructure bill Romney and some fellow Republicans were able to negotiate down from President Joe Biden’s original $3.5 trillion to $1.2 trillion, most of which they say would be paid for by existing spending.
Romney told a webinar sponsored by the Salt Lake Chamber on Wednesday that even he doesn’t like parts of the bill. But he believes it’s much better than the alternative, which would be to “let the Democrats do a bill entirely on their own.”
They could do that, he reminded his audience, using their bare majority in the Senate and a rules procedure known as reconciliation. That would negate Republicans’ ability to filibuster and kill the thing.
For some reason, Biden supports the compromise bill and is pushing it, he said. Republicans should be happy to go along, not making the perfect the enemy of the good.
I haven’t heard talk like that since the tea party silenced some Republicans who had supported bailouts to stem the rapidly growing danger of financial collapse in fall 2008. Frankly, it’s a refreshing bit of candor and logic.
Two years ago, as the 2020 election landscape was beginning to unfold, Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle used the same logic to attack Massachusetts senator and presidential wannabe Elizabeth Warren. During a debate, she lashed out at critics by saying, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
Drehle, who called pragmatism “America’s distinctive contribution to philosophy,” said Warren “ought to care deeply about the effects of her ideas — whether she can actually do the things she promises and whether her idealistic ‘should-dos’ are also pragmatic ‘could-dos.’”
Without that, “Reality is not going to bend to a new shape … just because … a President Warren fights with it,” he wrote.
If you believe, as 19th century German statesman Otto Von Bismark said, that, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best,” then everyone should drink from half-filled cups now and then. It’s better than dying of thirst. It might even advance your own cause a bit.
Earlier this week, the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards met with Utah’s 2nd District Congressman Chris Stewart, a conservative Republican, and Hawaii Rep. Ed Case, a Democrat. Stewart was showing Case around his district as part of an American Congressional Exchange program sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
As naive as it may sound, the purpose of the program is to get people on opposite ends of the political aisle to talk to each other, to meet some of the people they serve and to understand why they think the way they do.
Beyond admitting, like former schoolyard enemies forced to sit together, that they liked each other, Stewart and Case told us they already had begun to find common ground on some issues. One of those was the belief that Washington’s overspending must stop.
Common ground can be the first step toward compromise.
But overspending also happens to be the crux of why some Republicans, including Utah’s other senator, Mike Lee, criticize much of the bill Romney helped craft.
Romney told the Chamber his bill includes $550 billion of new spending over five years, which he said wouldn’t add to the deficit. Lee doesn’t buy it, and he notes the bill is 2,700 pages long. That means it could contain stuff no one knows about, yet.
These are valid concerns. As of Wednesday, the national debt was at $28.6 trillion and growing, and the annual federal budget deficit stood at $3.3 trillion, and also growing. How much more borrowing can the economy take?
Romney, who spent much of his presentation Wednesday talking about things Utah would get from his bill, ended by saying he thought it had a 60% chance of becoming law, against a 35% chance the Democrats simply would force their own, more expensive bill, through. He said a 5% chance existed that everything would fall apart.
Given all he’s been through lately, Romney probably doesn’t care much about political existentialism. What he does understand is that elections and majorities matter.
Pragmatism often doesn’t get you the best outcome, but Bismark’s “next best” should not be confused with failure.