Sen. Mitt Romney’s announcement on Wednesday that he will not seek re-election next year has sent pundits in Washington on a frenzied quest to uncover the deeper significance of the Utah senator’s exit from public life. Does Romney’s retirement signify the collapse of the moderate center in the Senate? The final stage of former President Donald Trump’s takeover of the GOP? A noble rebuke to Washington’s ossified gerontocracy?
But according to one of Romney’s erstwhile Republican colleagues — former Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who retired from the Senate after two terms in 2019 — there might be a simpler explanation for Romney’s decision: Life after the Senate can be pretty pleasant.
“I considered [serving in the Senate] the greatest privilege of my life, but I just haven’t missed it — I just haven’t,” said Corker, who parlayed a lucrative career in real estate into a Senate seat in 2006. “I was able to easily move into another world without looking back. I think Mitt Romney will be able to do exactly the same thing.”
Even before their early retirements, Corker and Romney shared a good deal in common: Both men were moderate Republican critics of Trump, and both built lucrative careers in the private sector before entering politics. And like Romney’s, Corker’s career in Washington was hardly a dud: Between 2015 and 2019, he served as chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and rose to become a senior member of the Senate Banking Committee.
But by the time he left, Corker no longer felt that his style of politics had a place left in the Senate. “The number of people who are willing to burn political capital by reaching across the aisle to solve problems was diminishing,” he said.
Now Corker confesses that this latest chapter of his career — which he’s spent as the chair of a major real estate company, the chairman of health care company and a senior advisor to the investment bank Jefferies — has been “the best period of my life.” When I talked to him on the phone Thursday to hear his advice for Romney after he leaves the Senate, Corker was on his way to hit the golf links with a famous country singer in Nashville.
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
Ian Ward: What was your reaction to Sen. Romney’s announcement? Were you surprised at all?
Bob Corker: I really wasn’t. I read the article in the Atlantic, and look — when you go to Washington as a person who’s accomplished a lot, and especially as a businessperson, you’re there to solve problems and to make a difference. I know the environment right now is not as conducive to that as it was at other times, so I understand why he might want to spend time doing other types of things.
Ward: Can you say a bit more about that environment?
Corker: I mean, let’s face it: There’s just not a great deal of problem-solving taking place. The big problems of our nation aren’t even being discussed. When you’re used to accomplishing a great deal, and when the environment is such that the real problems of our nation continue to be unaddressed, I think people like Mitt Romney decide to spend time doing other things.
Ward: You and Sen. Romney were seen as some of the last remaining moderate Republican critics of Trump in the Senate. Does his retirement mark the end of an era?
Corker: Oh, I don’t know —I don’t pay a lot of attention to what each senator is or isn’t doing. But he obviously … hold on, let me just do one thing. [Inaudible yelling.] Hey, sorry, that’s Kix Brooks — he’s a country singer down here in Tennessee, and I’m over at Nashville on business, and now I’m going to play golf with him, which is rare.
Ward: Are you playing a lot of golf these days?
Corker: Not really. I still love working. But look — I know the general storyline of people like myself and Mitt. It’s the greatest privilege in the world to serve in the Senate, but I had told citizens back home that I would only serve two terms. I do think that Mitt’s an accomplished person, and when you realize that it’s unlikely that the serious issues facing our nation are going to be discussed, you think about doing other productive things. I mean, if you look at the presidential race today, neither of the two leading candidates are even discussing solving our nation’s biggest issues right now. So I can understand why, at this age and this time of life, he would think about doing something else with the remainder of his energetic life.
Ward: How does age factor into that decision? You were in your late 60s when you left, and Romney’s in his mid-70s.
Corker: I was 66-years old when I left, and I still get up at 4:30 in the morning feeling as active and energetic as I’ve ever felt — I really do. When I wake up in the morning, I’m ready to go and I’m excited about the work that I have before me each day. But I think it’s more that when you get to 66-years old — and not that that’s old; it’s practically a teenager in the Senate these days — but I think that you begin thinking about the remainder of time that you likely will have with energy and health. You really do begin to think about that scarcity and about how you’re going to most productively use that time. For me, serving in the Senate — while being the greatest privilege of my life — it just didn’t define me. It was an honor to have been able to do it, but I was able to easily move into another world without looking back. I think Mitt Romney will be able to do exactly the same thing.
Ward: As you pointed out, both you and Romney were businessmen before you were politicians. How did that factor into your decision to step back — wanting to get back into the private sector?
Corker: The biggest part of my decision was I had told people back home that I would only serve two terms. … But no doubt, at year 10 of serving in the Senate — even though I was in a great place as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and I would have been next in line to be chairman of the Banking Committee — the legislative pace was continuing to slow. The number of people who are willing to burn political capital by reaching across the aisle to solve problems was diminishing. So no question: When you reached about year 10, you’re impatient, you wanted to get things done, and when you realize that it’s unlikely that that’s going to happen — yes, you begin to look at other ways of productively living your life.
Ward: Do you missing anything about life in Washington?
Corker: You know, I’ve only been back to the Hill one time, and I’ve been gone for four years now, so … Again, I considered it the greatest privilege of my life, but I just haven’t missed it. I just haven’t. I know that a lot of people, just due to their nature, have difficulty leaving it and are always thinking that that was the best period of their life. But for me, thankfully, today is the best period of my life.
Ward: Do you have any nuggets of wisdom to share with Sen. Romney as he plans his post-Senate life?
Corker: Take this time before committing to something to make sure it’s something that you really want to do. He’ll be hit with numbers of opportunities — as I was — but wait a year. Because if you make a decision that takes you down a road, and that’s not really the right one, it takes time to unravel that, and then you burn up a lot of your productive life pursuing something that is not the right thing. Take your time.
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