Mitt Romney on Wednesday announced his retirement from the Senate, likely signaling an end to a career of noble tragedy. By the end, he saw more clearly than almost anybody in his party the authoritarian path it was following, but he found himself helpless to arrest it. He embodies the doomed tradition of the Republican moderate, and his departure signifies its final extinction.
Romney sprang from political nobility. His father, George, served as president of American Motors, governor of Michigan, and for a time seemed likely to win the presidency. The elder Romney had fought for civil rights, created a state income tax, and doubled the state education budget in Michigan. These achievements made him the leader of his party’s then-formidable moderate wing. George grasped the extremism of the conservative movement and threw himself into the fight to arrest its takeover of the party. In 1964, he refused to endorse Barry Goldwater and wrote a scathing 12-page letter denouncing his extreme anti-statism and opposition to civil rights laws.
Romney’s defeat in 1968 seemed at the time to be a temporary factional setback but turned out to be an irreversible catastrophe. “In hindsight,” wrote Geoffrey Kabaservice, “Romney was the GOP moderates’ last and best chance to elect one of their own to the presidency, which in turn would have preserved the long-term viability of the moderate movement.”
Mitt inherited his father’s sensibility and many of his values. But without any kind of political base or intellectual infrastructure like his father enjoyed, he was reduced to half-measures, lurching away from the embrace of the conservative-dominated party but then rushing back into its fold. His ideas would evaporate like ice cubes on warm pavement.
Romney burst into politics in Massachusetts, running a slashing right-wing campaign in 1994 on the wave of the Gingrich revolution to defeat Ted Kennedy. In defeat, he swerved back to the center, won his state’s governorship, and designed an innovative new program to make health insurance available to every citizen in the Commonwealth.
In 2008, he ran for president, veering again to the right. He lost but performed well enough in the primary to almost immediately launch another campaign for the nomination four years later. In between, he suffered a deep political setback: Barack Obama, the Republican Party’s bête noire, had used his Massachusetts plan as the model for a national program. (Indeed, Romney had been promising to do the same thing.) But Obama’s embrace turned the program, which even conservatives had once praised for its simplicity and reliance on a market, into a socialist monstrosity. Romney eventually abandoned his own idea, pretending, falsely, that he had never held it up as a national model. And so Romney is the godfather of one of the century’s great social achievements but has never been able to claim credit for his own handiwork.
Like many wealthy businessmen, Romney was caught up in a wave of social Darwinist hysteria during Obama’s first term, believing the rich were besieged by a mob of undeserving moochers and looters. He was caught telling donors in a private meeting that he could never reach, and had no interest in helping, 47 percent of the voters, who were:
dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it … These are people who pay no income tax … [My] job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
But the appearance on the scene of Donald Trump precipitated yet another jarring shift in Romney’s public identity. As a candidate, Romney had publicly embraced the reality-television star despite his birtherism and general sleaze. But watching the whole party fall in for a liar and crook shook Romney loose from his partisan attachments.
Romney seemed to reprise his father’s war against the Golderwaterite fanatics. He criticized Trump openly as a liar in 2016, briefly entertained working in his administration to contain the threat to national security, before settling into a role as a kind of mordant skeptic. He stood almost alone among his party in denouncing Trump’s scheme to extort Ukraine to smear Joe Biden (even though, as he later revealed, many of his Senate colleagues privately shared his assessment.)
In his comments to McKay Coppins, the Atlantic writer in whom he confided for a biography, Romney flays the cowardice of his Republican colleagues, who routinely place political self-interest over their honesty and duty. He reveals that shortly before January 6, he texted Mitch McConnell with a warning of violent mobs descending on the city but received no response at all. After the attack, several Republicans admitted they were afraid voting to impeach Trump would expose themselves and their family to violent reprisals from his supporters.
The significance of this admission cannot be understated. It reveals that the violent threat from the extremist right did not end after the Capitol was retaken on January 6; indeed, the threat of violence had more effect in the days afterward, swaying the votes of terrified legislators. The failure to convict Trump is one of the most consequential decisions in American history. Had Republicans kept their nerve, Trump would now be disqualified for the presidency, rather than poised to retake it. That decision was arrived at not through conviction, or even political calculation, but functionally at gunpoint.
Romney seemed to settle on an identity as a conventional Republican in matters of ordinary policy, but who would break ranks on questions of democracy and the rule of law. During the Biden presidency, he sought an active but conservative role as a policymaker. He helped organize a Biden clique to pass infrastructure investments, but, as Franklin Foer reveals in his new biography of Biden, Romney “became singularly focused on ratcheting down spending on buses and subway systems,” an odd and very small-minded fixation.
In his video announcing retirement, Romney wanly depicts Biden and Trump as equally flawed men, trading off matching criticisms of the two. “Donald Trump calls global warming a hoax, and President Biden offers feel-good solutions that will make no difference to the global climate,” he complains at one point — a ludicrous assessment of Biden, given the undeniable breadth of his domestic-energy reforms.
What comes through with depressing clarity in Coppins’s account is the vast disconnect between Romney’s public and private assessments of his party. Behind closed doors, he scathingly indicts the GOP as a proto-authoritarian formation. In public, he only hints at these beliefs. It is revealing that he created a pseudonymous Twitter account to express beliefs he couldn’t safely associate with.
Coppins describes Romney fixating on the line from Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” It is not certain if he understood that he was diagnosing himself.