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Opinion: Romney wants to pass the torch, but finding real leaders to grab it won’t be easy

The senator provided America an image of politicians as performance artists. The current saga over DACA is a perfect example

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Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney says he will not run for reelection in 2024.

Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney says he will not run for reelection in 2024, as he speaks to reporters in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. The 76-year-old easily won election in reliably GOP Utah in 2018 but was expected to face more resistance from his own party after he emerged as one of the most visible members to break with former President Donald Trump.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Perhaps the most memorable thing Sen. Mitt Romney left us with this week was the image of his colleagues in the Senate as performance artists. 

And at precisely the time when we need real leaders.

In a candid excerpt of an upcoming biography by The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins, Romney recounts being told by a Senate colleague, “There are about 20 senators here who do all the work, and there are about 80 who go along for the ride.”

The Senate, he learned, “was built around posturing and theatrics. Legislators gave speeches to empty chambers and spent hours debating bills they all knew would never pass. They summoned experts to appear at committee hearings only to make them sit in silence while they blathered some more.”

Please tell me you’re not surprised.

Romney is not the most popular conservative in Washington. But in my encounters with him and discussions with others about him, I find no reason to doubt the sincerity or accuracy of his observations. That’s often the case with the few, rare people who voluntarily relinquish their grip on power.

In announcing that he won’t seek a second term as Utah’s junior senator, Romney cited age — his own (76), former President Donald Trump’s (77), President Joe Biden’s (80) and presumably others among the 19 in the House and Senate who are 80 or older. He called for a “new generation of leaders,” but it seemed as if his point had less to do with a person’s generation and more to do with leaders.

And, as if on queue, his announcement on Wednesday was followed a few hours later by a federal judge in Texas ruling that Biden’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, is illegal.

It is illegal, the judge said, because, in essence, presidents are not dictators. Only Congress can pass laws granting permanent residency to people who were brought to this country as children by parents who are undocumented, which is what DACA is all about.

He might have added that only Congress can solve the nation’s overspending problem by getting serious about reforming Social Security, Medicare and military spending.

And only Congress should solve issues regarding federal lands and the designation of new national monuments — issues important to many Utahns.

Yet, instead, Congress fails to act, presidents fill the void through questionable executive orders and courts are left to decide what stays and what goes. That isn’t how the founders intended it.

And today, as Romney said, neither the president nor the former president are leading the way toward urging their parties to solve these problems.

DACA ought to be an easy one. It prevents the deportation of people who arrived in this country through no decision of their own, and who have avoided criminal records or other problems. These are Americans in all but documentation.

The original Dream Act was co-sponsored by the late Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. It didn’t pass. Former President Barack Obama then imposed a version of it through executive order. Trump tried to reverse that, but the Supreme Court eventually overturned that action, keeping the program in place. In 2022, the same judge that ruled this week struck that down, leading Biden to tweak it a bit. Now the judge has declared that version illegal, as well, while stopping short of deporting the roughly 580,000 people who have received work permits because of it.

The Supreme Court is the next likely stop. It doesn’t have to be.

The beneficiaries of this program have been through a cruel rollercoaster of emotions. Yet, the Constitution contains rules that must be followed. 

As U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen wrote in his ruling, “The solution for these deficiencies lies with the legislature, not the executive or judicial branches. Congress, for any number of reasons, has decided not to pass DACA-like legislation. ... The executive branch cannot usurp the power bestowed on Congress by the Constitution — even to fill a void.”

In the excerpt from his book, Coppins quotes Romney saying, “A very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.” 

For many, a colleague told Romney, their first consideration is whether a vote will help them get reelected.

Romney may be right that it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation, to paraphrase the late John F. Kennedy. But passing it to new leaders who are more interested in real work than in posturing and theatrics? That may be a difficult task.