Opinion writer

Mitt Romney, during a Wednesday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, said something that politicians rarely do. “I think if people come to Washington with the expressed hope of staying in the job forever, they’re making a huge mistake,” he said. “The idea of this democratic republic is that people would come representing the people that elected them and also representing the views and values that they have.” The incoming Republican senator from Utah added, “I come to Washington with that perspective. And I’m really not looking for the next election and the next spot.” Romney also said he would not be a candidate for president in 2020. You can take that all with a grain of salt, having seen many politicians flip-flop on whether they will run for the nation’s highest office.

If he really intends to serve without looking over his shoulder at the Republican base — or the Fox News hosts, or presidential donors — he may be bolder, and hence have more impact, than his peers. He showed he’s willing to break with Trump at least on some issues. (“I also note that the departure of [Defense Secretary Jim] Mattis and the decision to pull out of Syria and the abrupt way it was done was a precipitating event for my finally going on this record.”) Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, also reiterated past disagreements with President Trump. “The Charlottesville response by the president was something that gave me great concern. The support for Roy Moore in the Senate race was something I was very, very concerned about, his attack on the media.”

Nevertheless, one shouldn’t conclude he is prepared to throw off the shackles of the Republican Party as it stands today. Sometimes, Romney sounds as though he would be fine with Trump minus the Twitter feed. (“While I agree with them on a lot of policy fronts and salute the work that’s been done by the Republican leadership in Washington, there are places that relate to the — if you will, forming of national character that I think we could do a better job”).

At the same time, Romney seems perfectly fine supporting some of the party’s dumbest positions. He declared of the useless, impractical and wasteful wall on the southern border that “with regards to the shutdown, I’ll be with Republicans on that front, which is — I think it’s important for us to secure the border.” In short, don’t expect him to be a maverick in the mold of late senator John McCain.

As Romney put it, it comes down to picking your shots. Does he think it is essential for the rule of law to pass legislation protecting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, or does this fall into the category of things he calls “just symbolic or punitive to the president”? Does a vote to strip Trump of his foreign emoluments and end insidious conflicts of interest a step toward returning us to the rule of law or “a poke . . . in the eye, just to make a statement”?

We certainly hope his departures from the Trump/GOP party line are not infrequent (considering that Trump’s Republican Party embraces climate change denial, big deficits, inhumane immigration policies and retreat from the world), and that he compels Trump to avoid nominating and retaining unqualified and/or unethical advisers. Regardless of where he draws the line, other Republicans should recognize there is an alternative to blind obedience to Trump. As Rick Wilson put it in the Daily Beast: “Some Republicans, perhaps just a few at first, will feel a prickly sensation up their spine when they hear Romney standing up to Trump, and refusing to play the same games that have consumed the integrity of former Trump skeptics like Lindsey Graham (R-Capitulation).” And if Romney chooses not to challenge Trump in 2020, we pray some other Republican takes up the fight.

Read more:

Karen Tumulty: Move over, Conways. The Romney family feud has taken center stage.

Henry Olsen: Mitt Romney’s op-ed crystallizes all the reasons the old GOP establishment has been pushed aside

Mitt Romney: The president shapes the public character of the nation. Trump’s character falls short.

Jennifer Rubin: A good start for Romney, but what next?

Max Boot: Let’s hope Mitt Romney can give the GOP some backbone