Trump-Romney relationship echoes history

Story highlights

  • When it happened in 1968, the circumstances were different, Gloria Borger says
  • Romney had said a Trump presidency would diminish America's "prospects for a safe and prosperous future"

(CNN)A President-elect stuns the political world by picking his onetime archenemy to become a member of his Cabinet. The two men had been public rivals, and the new president could not forget the slights his nemesis had inflicted -- including initially refusing to release his delegates to the nominee at the party convention -- but he gives him the Cabinet post anyway.

That president was Richard Nixon. His enemy? George Romney. And the appointment happened nearly half a century ago. Mitt Romney was 21 years old when his father agreed to join Nixon's Cabinet after the 1968 election.
And so here we are, 48 years later, as President-elect Trump considers picking his antagonist for secretary of state. Sure, it's too simple to say that history might be repeating itself.
After all, George Romney became Nixon's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a far cry from the status of his son's potential position. And there was a sense that while Nixon was looking for a more moderate, establishment type to round out his administration (as may be the case with Trump) he also privately saw the appointment as a put-down -- a sinecure from which Romney, his onetime rival, might never emerge.
Not so with this Romney. The job he's being considered for is arguably the most coveted spot in any administration. High profile. High wire. High impact.
There was a time, last March to be exact, when Romney was full of invective about Trump -- labeling him a con man, predicting a Trump presidency would diminish America's "prospects for a safe and prosperous future."
It was eerily similar to what his father had done when he walked out on the nomination of Barry Goldwater at the 1964 GOP convention. Afterward, Romney penned a public letter decrying Goldwater's ideology as something that could "lead to governmental crises and deadlocks." Four years later, George Romney's once promising presidential campaign failed but he resisted pledging support to Nixon before the roll call at the GOP convention. Until then, his refusal to back the likely nominee was seen as a key to the "stop Nixon" effort.
Like father, like son.
It makes a lot of sense that Trump loyalists worry about a rogue Romney, given the fact that he was an original NeverTrumper. Or that he and the President-elect hardly see eye to eye on foreign policy -- including how to treat Russia and trading partners.
A Trump-Romney alliance takes the notion of a "Team of Rivals" to a whole new level. Yet in many ways, the critics' worries are just like those of the Obama loyalists in 2008 about Hillary Clinton as secretary of state: Will the secretary toe the line? Or will there be a separate power center over at Foggy Bottom? Would Romney rebel?
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The answer, according to sources who know Romney well: not likely. He's a patriot, they say, devoted to the country. And he knows how government works, understands the president is the boss, and probably sees this job as a way to serve on a large scale having lost two bids for the White House himself. Sure, he had to eat crow -- and it was painful for some of his allies to watch. But he did it, because he wants the job.
And there are a few other things to consider, those in his orbit say: They're two men of the same generation. And they've both been wildly successful at business. "In a way, they speak the same language as two men who ran great companies," says one Romney ally, talking about Romney's former investment firm, Bain Capital. Neither comes from a foreign policy background. And neither man is an ideologue.
If Trump, the TV entrepreneur, were casting around for a secretary of state, Romney would fit the bill. But put the two men together and they look more like Felix and Oscar in "The Odd Couple." If Trump is bombastic, Romney is a diplomat. If Trump wings it, Romney plans it. And if Trump ruffles feathers, Romney can tidy up the mess. Oh, and one more thing: If Trump doesn't want a fight on his hands, Romney can get confirmed by the Senate.
Here's another piece of history to remember: In the end, maybe predictably, George Romney and Richard Nixon didn't get along. They clashed over policy. Nixon even tried to sideline Romney by offering him the ambassadorship to Mexico. But their fights -- while intense -- were private. And when Romney finally decided to quit, he waited -- as the president had requested -- until after Nixon was re-elected.
It was, after all, the proper thing to do.