Romney Established a Legacy Worthy of a President
He could have retired from politics after losing in 2012. America is better off that he didn't.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) announced this week that he won’t be running for reelection next year. Polling data suggested he was likely to win if he did, but he decided against it, citing in part his age. In a statement, he spoke of his achievements, described several big challenges our country faces, and called on a younger generation of political leaders to “step up” to meet them. He also criticized the disarray of House Republicans and the poor leadership of President Biden and former President Trump.
Plainly stated, I’m going to miss Romney. He’s one of the very few Republicans who’s managed to maintain his dignity and integrity throughout the Trump era. That’s no small feat.
Longtime readers may remember that I wasn’t always so high on Romney. In fact, when he first ran for president in 2008, he drove me a little nuts. He handled himself, with a notable degree of smugness, as the Republican front-runner for the nomination, and a conservative standard-bearer, when the polls and his record (which included big political and ideological reversals) demonstrated otherwise. I was glad that John McCain beat him, but was also impressed with how quickly and seemingly sincerely the two men patched things up, and became political allies, after a fairly contentious primary.
Romney wasn’t my guy four years later, either. In fact, there were a number of Republican presidential candidates I would have preferred over him. I was initially a Newt Gingrich supporter and volunteer, and I advocated for the former Speaker at the precinct caucus I led in February of 2012. I happened to meet a guy that day, who I soon discovered lived just down the street from me. He was a Romney supporter and volunteer, and he similarly made a case for his candidate. I wasn’t persuaded by it, still believing Romney to be short on principles and conviction, but the two of us became friends, and still are. In recent years, in seeing how prominent Republicans have navigated the MAGA-takeover of the party, I’ve repeatedly conceded to him that he was right and I was wrong.
But let’s get back to 2012. Romney may have not been my ideal choice, but he proved to be a stronger candidate than I’d thought, and when he won the nomination, I was ready to support him. My concerns didn’t vanish, but he was obviously a very intelligent, experienced, capable executive who I was far more politically in sync with than Barack Obama and the Democratic party.
Plus, the more I learned about Romney the man, including his countless acts of kindness and generosity (like helping a dying teenager draft a will, and flying 30 of his employees to New York to help look for a colleague's missing daughter), the more impressed I grew.
Just days before the 2012 election, I wrote this about the deep political polarization in our country, and why I was endorsing Romney for president:
Whether or not you admire Mitt Romney and his accomplishments, or agree with him on every position, a few things should be apparent by now: He has no interest in creating villains. He has no interest in stoking envy, building resentment, and defining Americans by their differences.
Whether or not you identify with him ideologically, Mitt Romney is a problem solver. He's had a long history of taking bad situations, turning them around, and achieving success. He has a governing history of working with people who disagree with him to build trust, build relationships, and accomplish good things for the people who put him in office.
Mitt Romney is not a divider.
When this election is over, and it's time to mend fences with the half of the country whose candidate lost, we're going to need someone in office who can bring us together and move forward. After watching President Obama in action for the last few years, does anyone honestly feel that he's even capable of a such a thing? After all, this is someone who told supporters at a campaign rally on Friday that "voting is the best revenge" against Mitt Romney. Revenge? Why do voters need to seek revenge against Romney? Because he had the gall to run against President Obama? What kind of leader talks like that?
This country desperately needs a style of leadership that doesn't constantly require excuses and scapegoats to explain its failures. We need a style of leadership that is driven by goals of success and prosperity that don't discriminate between people based on their race, gender, or income.
Undecided voters have a chance on Tuesday to unite this country by recognizing and supporting the need for a new direction. It's time to end this long, demoralizing chapter of division and frustration.
I’m even more confident now than I was back then that a Romney presidency would have changed the political and cultural tragectory of our nation for the better. For all of that talk about hope and change years earlier, Obama, as president, never showed any interest in trying to build bridges. He was instead focused on ramming through whatever government-heavy policies he could while his allies cast his political opposition as cold-hearted and bigoted.
But most voters didn’t share my desire for change. Romney lost, and was met with resentment by scores of Republican voters (more than many of us realized at the time) who’d been led to believe, including by many in the conservative media, that President Obama had been on the cusp of defeat.
I was very disappointed by the election outcome, of course, but was probably more sympathetic to Romney than most. While I felt he could have performed better in the last two presidential debates (he knocked the first one of the park), the political environment was very much stacked against him. His opponent was an incumbent president — one of monumental historical significance, who was adored by a grossly compliant media that was more than eager to cast Romney as a merciless, poor-people-hating racist who killed a cancer victim and wanted to put women in “binders” (the latter somehow a political gotcha, though its backlash never did make a lick of sense). Such advantages helped Obama successfully gloss over his record of unbearably slow economic growth, and deeply unpopular healthcare reform, with an atomic class-warfare campaign.
When the Trump cult began its takeover of the GOP a few years later, there was an often echoed narrative that the former game-show host’s popularity as a presidential candidate was a direct result of Romney’s defeat, which marked the second consecutive loss by an “establishment” Republican. Trump, in many ways, was seen as the anti-Romney. Romney was dull and dry. Trump was, as Charles Krauthammer colorfully put it, a rodeo clown. Romney was a moral family man. Trump cheated on all three of his wives. Romney was thoughtful and civil; a nice guy. Trump acted like a belligerent drunk at a bar, yelling and indiscriminately waving a broken beer-bottle neck at patrons. Romney was highly intelligent, had a strong grasp of the issues, and articulated ideas and solutions. Trump… well, he was Trump.
The thesis was solidified when Trump pulled off a general-election victory that surprised even him. Conventional wisdom became: Trump’s a winner. Romney, McCain, and their “ilk” are losers. That theme still lives on in the hearts and minds of millions of Republicans — assuredly most of the party. But by any fair analysis, the purported lesson learned from that election was deeply flawed then… and fatally flawed now.
Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s general-election opponent, was no Barack Obama — not by any stretch of the imagination. She wasn’t an incumbent. Her likeability and approval ratings were stuck underwater, and every time she spoke publicly, her numbers got even worse. On paper, the prospect of America’s first female president was a big deal, but it interestingly wasn’t big enough for Clinton’s own party four years earlier, who (along with the media) largely rejected her in favor of Obama. There were also the matters of her false statements on Benghazi, her email-server controversy, and the FBI discovering additional Clinton emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, over which an investigation was announced just days before the election.
Truth be told, Clinton was an absolutely horrific candidate. Romney, McCain, and every Republican who ran in 2016 would have loved to have gone head to head with her, and almost assuredly would have won. Yet, a plurality of Republicans nominated perhaps the one guy who could put that outcome at risk. Despite Clinton besting Trump by 3 million votes, and Trump garnishing a smaller portion of the overall vote than Romney four years earlier, he managed to pull off a tight electoral college win. He then proceeded, over the next two election cycles, to lose Republicans the House, Senate, and of course the presidency… the latter against another candidate far weaker than Obama, and again with a smaller portion of the vote than Romney. The bloodbath amounted to the GOP’s worst electoral losses in close to 70 years. And two years and a second impeachment later, Trump cost Republicans the Senate again, and turned the House-GOP’s widely predicted midterm tsunami into a ripple.
But somehow, in this alternative universe in which today’s GOP operates, Trump still epitomizes winning. And Romney, a guy who’s won more elections to high-office than Trump has, is the poster-child for losing.
Makes total sense, huh?
It’s almost as if “winning” is no longer defined by electoral victories, or even legislative wins, but rather public tantrums about the latest cultural or partisan outrage. Go figure.
Oh, and Romney is still widely seen as a flip-flopper, despite demonstrating no real policy or ideological shifts for well over a decade, while many of the GOP’s top stars serve as human weather-vanes, routinely adopting positions they previously excoriated, often to accommodate the latest Trump whim, or to secure a Fox News television appearance that night.
But what really upsets the Republican base about Romney these days has nothing to do with his election loss over a decade ago, or his position on any issue. What upsets them are the same things that turned me from a tepid supporter to a deep admirer over that same period time.
I figured out who Romney really is, or at least who he’s become: a conscientious man of principle; an independent thinker and instinctual leader with strong character and moral integrity. He loves his country, and takes seriously his role as a senator and his oath to the Constitution. He’s a guy who’s not afraid to speak up in defense of the values he holds true, even when it means holding the leader of his party and/or a U.S. president accountable for his actions.
Those are rare traits in public office these days — traits that stand in direct defiance of much of today’s political landscape, including the modern Republican establishment, its base, and their continued slavish loyalty to one man.
We need more people like Mitt Romney in public office, not fewer. But his reasons for retiring from the Senate are sound and admirable. I’m thankful for his strong leadership and patriotic service, and I wish him well in his final 16 months in office.
His absence will definitely be felt.