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Farewell to Mitt Romney, Republican with a Spine
As the Utah senator announces he won’t be running for re-election, a look back at his unique (and sometimes lonely) role in the last decade and a half of national politics.
IN THE BEGINNING, I was paid to dislike Mitt Romney.
I took to it rather easily, to be honest.
On that first presidential campaign, back in 2008, his persona was an unpleasant combination that you can find only in society’s rarefied environs: completely cocksure and deeply awkward all at once. Romney was so awkward, in fact, that there is a YouTube video that I would turn to from time to time for laughs titled, “Mitt Romney and the Infinite Sadness.” It features such gems as Mitt chanting “Who let the dogs out? Who, who?,” and telling Wolf Blitzer he “lives for laughter.”
Then there were Mitt’s bizarre attempts at pandering to the conservative base, which were offensive to me both on the merits of the policies (self-deportation! varmint hunting!) and also as a practitioner of the craft. How could this ham-fisted Richie Rich fool voters into thinking he was with them?! (Little did I know…)
He was one of the only politicians in America who went backwards on gay rights, supporting them in Massachusetts before backtracking in an attempt to win over some of America’s and Christianity’s worst representatives: the Iowa caucuses’ pay-for-play pastors.
His deep, abiding Mormon faith, I must admit, also struck me at times as a little weird. I had seen the South Park episode and read Under The Banner of Heaven, and let’s just say I had some questions.As a result of his faith, he did not drink alcohol. He once offered a friend a “Samuel Adams Light,” using the full forename of the beer’s namesake (suspect).
And most of all, Romney’s decision to enter a campaign against John McCain and Rudy Giuliani—GOP legends with mainstream views who we were confident would govern well—felt hubristic. (Okay, turns out we were 1 for 2 on that.)
But eventually, slowly but surely, Mitt and his milk mustache started to win me over.
FOUR YEARS LATER, I was once again paid to dislike Mitt, this time on behalf of Jon Huntsman’s 2012 presidential campaign. It was a little harder for me to get riled up about my job than it had been during the previous election.
Mitt had started to grow on me. The Sunday-school humor. The earnestness. Finding the courage of his convictions. Meanwhile, the attacks against him became increasingly unhinged. (He wanted to hire more women and organized their resumes in binders! His wife doesn’t work!)
Yet, there was something different about him. Despite our being on opposing sides in the primary, he had come to be a politician I felt I could trust—at least as much as you can trust any politician. Here’s something I wrote in an op-ed after Huntsman dropped out in 2012. It seems the published version has been lost to the internet, but I found the pitch in my Gmail archives:
In 2008 [Mitt] played to his audience and was unsure of his message, a bore on the stump and a pedestrian debater. This year, he had a clear message, was comfortable in his own skin, relentlessly honest, and the best debater in the field.
In 2008 he made opposition researchers and rapid responders giddy with his propensity for saying different things to different audiences in spite of his own record or message. Now? He takes glee in telling voters exactly what he feels this country needs, whether they agree or not.
That self-assuredness, righteousness, and confidence in his values were what, in the times of trial, made all the difference. Whatever it was that he summoned from within his heart between 2008 and 2012, it turned out to be exactly what the country needed—just not in the specific way Mitt had hoped.
ANOTHER FOUR YEARS LATER, I was once again paid to hate someone, but this time it was someone I actually hated. Someone who deserved it. Donald Trump.
By this time, I was through with the childish games. Stopping this opponent was not about who got the best job in the West Wing or about marginal differences in policies between candidates with directionally similar views. It was an existential threat to our country. It struck at the heart of everything that I thought was good about the United States.
For all my cynicism, for all my disillusionment with the more extreme elements of the party, I still believed that when push came to shove, the “adults” in charge would do the right thing. They would help us stop this menace. They would speak with clarity about the threat. They would even sabotage their own nominee, if it came to it. The stakes were that high.
We all know how that turned out.
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In the end there was only me, and there was only Mitt. Not literally, of course. But close enough that sometimes it felt like it.
The boss I worked for in 2012 told me he wasn’t going to help our effort to stop Trump. Senator after senator told us they were going to wait and see what happened. Right-wing TV hosts who knew better started biting their tongues, or worse, promoting the new line. Every non-McCain member of the 2008 race who had upbraided Romney as a phony and a hypocrite now sold themselves out for a single ride on Trump’s golf cart.
I remember watching his speech from Utah in 2016 about the threat from Trump. He had the same stilted demeanor. Same awkward mien. But he had a fire inside of him. Nobody else was speaking out, but he did.
He didn’t do the Chris Sununu thing where he pretended the main reason to oppose Trump was that he couldn’t win. He didn’t frame his argument merely as a practical one about how Trump would hurt the party politically.
He went right for the core of the man and what electing him would say about our country:
Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the American public for suckers. . . . He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president, and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.
That premonition turned into reality. As our nation’s light dimmed, Romney’s only shined brighter, with just one darker moment: a fateful dinner that he attended because he thought doing so might help him protect the country from the menace his party had created. It would become clear to him afterward that saving America couldn’t be done from inside a White House of iniquity.
In the months that followed, Pierre Delecto would become conservative America’s most lucid voice of conscience and reason.
Romney could have retired to his car elevator and grandchildren Olympics. Instead, he stayed in the fray. Became the only Republican senator to vote to convict Trump in both impeachments. The first senator in American history to vote to convict a president of his own party. The GOP elected official with the most clear-eyed rationale for denying Trump the presidency ever again. The one most willing to openly attack the Trump minions like George Santos who have infested the Capitol.
Through all that, he has been a loner in Washington. McKay Coppins reports, in an excerpt from his forthcoming biography of Romney, that when he goes to the GOP Senate lunches, he has flashbacks to his time as the only Mormon at Cranbrook (that’s a private school).
But he hasn’t given up an inch to a desire to be “in the mix”; neither has he bent even a little to peer pressure from fellow Republicans or his new friends in the middle. The Washington Post reports that he has repeatedly implored Joe Manchin and others flirting with “No Labels” to avoid the group out of a concern that they would only help Trump darken the White House door again. Thank God.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE awkward Romney lines was from an appearance he made on Monday Night Football, during which he told Chris Berman about how inspired he gets from the way athletes are forced to reveal their character in the “crucible of sport.”
In 2016, when the GOP entered a character-revealing crucible of its own, Mitt Romney was the rare man who was not dishonored. Who didn’t cower or cringe. Who fought for what was right. Who saw the devil for what he was and refused to submit.
He will be missed.