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Why Did Rich Mitt Romney Ever Bother With Politics?

As his Senate career draws to a close, we’re no closer to solving the mystery of why he ran for office in the first place.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

History has conspired to give Mitt Romney a better first line to his obituary than “failed presidential candidate.” Should our corporate media continue its tradition of fetishizing the “moderate conservative,” which has become something of a political cryptid, the Utah senator will now be remembered for being the sole Republican to vote “guilty” in Trump’s impeachment trial, thus vaulting high above the very low bar set by his colleagues for political courage. Happily for Romney, The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins’s authorized biography has given the pundit class an excuse to eulogize his career—which Romney can enjoy from the comfort of his Senate office and not beyond the grave.

The appreciations have been fulsome and fantastic, particularly the ones that imagine an alternate history in which a bloodless and technocratic Romney presidency in 2012 would mean “none of this would have happened: No Trump, no MAGA, no decade-long, racism-infused, faux-populist nightmare from which much of the nation is trying to awake.” These flights of fancy are elaborations on the moderate Republican scolding that Trump’s ascendence wouldn’t have happened if we had only been nicer to Mitt.

Isn’t it pretty to think so! In a best-case scenario, Romney’s earnest desire for win-win compromises would have given the Tea Party (already tweaking hard from successfully shutting down the government in 2011) more ammunition for its campaign against RINO fakes. They would have treated him as the opposition; perhaps Obama would have been far enough in the rearview mirror by 2016 that a Trump primary challenge wouldn’t have been quite as viscerally bigoted, but I find it hard to believe America’s latent nationalist streak would have failed to rise.

In a worst-case scenario, Romney’s habit of trying to neutralize messy ideological confrontations with shifty verbal contortions—a habit that must have served him well in the business world—would have allowed the GOP hard-liners to run roughshod over whatever milder form of conservatism Romney actually believes. (Let’s recall that these same forces, long before Trump sidled down his gilded staircase, successfully coerced Mitt into describing himself as a “severe” conservative.)

For the very little it’s worth, I do believe in the revisionist version of Romney: the cautious ally to LGTBQ people and hands-off approach to reproductive rights—the guy who really wants to help people! I believe in that guy because that’s who Romney was when he started his political career. The tragedy of Romney—though take care not to pity the multimillionaire overmuch—is that it’s taken so much failure and disappointment to force him to circle back to being that person in the public eye.

Romney’s failings stem from his privileges: He is so naturally handsome and amiable, so unnaturally rich and successful—so much has come easily to him that he’s never really been cutthroat. He doesn’t have the venality or canny sense of other people’s weaknesses that greases the careers of most politicians. He operates on the assumption of good faith, or at least fair compensation. When he makes concession X, that should mean you make concession Y.

One of the most-cited lines from Coppins’s book is Romney’s guileless observation that a “very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.” As others have noted, Romney’s realization is a bit late to be believed as a genuine revelation, but I think it’s the “really” in that sentence that signals he has truly experienced a recent shift in understanding. See, he thought other Republicans just disagreed with him; maybe they had a different approach to the same goals. Or that they were saying stuff in order to further a particular policy. Nope! It turns out that they actually, really, don’t give a shit about much of anything besides staying in office.

Romney’s rather sincere take on political horse-trading explains both his best and worst moments. In retrospect, his 2012 campaign against Obama wasn’t just relatively dignified, it was positively genteel. When Romney won the nomination, Obama called Romney to congratulate him—something opposing presidents hardly ever do. Romney’s initial attacks on Obama hinged on the admission that the Democrat was a “nice guy” who was just in over his head! The Obama campaign famously struggled at first to find purchase for their accusations that Romney was a callous hedge-fund villain.

When things inevitably got more heated—Romney did want to win, after all, and he was losing—Romney’s public remarks about Obama got sharper. He decided to say whatever he needed to say to get his fellow Republicans behind him. A trade of sorts: I’ll give lip service to your fixations, you vote for me. Not only was this gambit unsuccessful, it led to one of modern political history’s most disastrous own goals: He told a room full of fat cats that 47 percent of Americans “are dependent upon government” and “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” Those comments got leaked, and the resulting audio of the remarks, complete with the delicate cacophony of clinking cocktail glasses in the background, became an all-time political attack ad—finally landing the out-of-touch aristocrat blow the Obama campaign had hoped for.

In his book, Coppins extracts from this incident some of the most humanizing images of Romeny to date. It’s worth quoting at length.

He could barely eat during the day and struggled to sleep at night, even after popping a Lunesta. He couldn’t even bring himself to listen to music in his hotel room—“just too sick at heart,” he wrote. When he tried to concentrate on briefing materials, his mind would drift toward the self-inflicted damage he had done to his campaign, and to all the people he had failed. To take his mind off it, he rode the elliptical at a punishing pace.

Night after night, Romney castigated himself in his private diary. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he wrote.

What especially stung, Coppins writes, was that the fatal line was prompted when a donor harrumphed about the poor and Romney didn’t push back. The donor “griped that ‘everybody’ in America had been told ‘don’t worry, we’ll take care of you’ [and] had asked Romney how he could ‘convince everybody you’ve got to take care of yourself.’” After the firestorm erupted, “Romney now told himself that this had been a dumb question, and he had been stupid to accept its premise.” He had “merely [been] trying to be polite in answering the query. Besides, he had only made the obvious political point that he needed to focus on a narrow swath of voters to win the election.”

But that was not the obvious political point he made. The political point he made was one that fit smoothly into the master narrative of “makers and takers” that Trump whipped into the Oval Office. Romney just really didn’t mean it, not that way.

However easy it is to empathize with someone who clearly was in or on the verge of clinical depression—and no one deserves that pain, no one—Romney’s suffering stemmed from him insulting almost of half of America; more than that, insincerely insulting them. More to the point, he insulted them because it was easier than saying what he really believed—perhaps because he’d not even thought hard enough about the matter to form beliefs. He was just making the obvious, and easy, political point! He was just trying to smooth a donor’s ruffled feathers! He was just trying to get elected, like you do.

Coppins’s book reveals that Romney was close to voting to exonerate Trump, grasping at vaporous rationalizations such as “Trump hadn’t explicitly [emphasis mine] told Zelenskiy he would withhold military aid until an investigation was open.” In his journal, Romney was honest with himself about why he was going to such moral acrobatics to justify acquittal. “I do not at all want to vote to convict,” he wrote. “The consequences of doing so are too painful to contemplate.”

Laying this out plainly: He was not struggling with whether Trump behaved unethically and maybe illegally; Romney was struggling with the consequences that would befall Romney should he cast a vote that came with negative political consequences. I really wish Romney had “contemplated” more on this occasion. What pain did he expect? Would he be personally hurt by rejection from his Senate colleagues? Was it just that he might not get reelected? I’d also like to know if things have been as painful as all that now that the deed is done.

The closer I read Coppins’s account of what finally convinced Romney to vote to convict, the less clear I am on what that rationale was. He appears to have been offended by his Senate colleagues’ nonchalance about voting out of political allegiance—he’s “taken aback” by Mitch McConnell candidly admitting that the prosecution “nailed” Trump—but that just means they were less conflicted than Romney. They weren’t journaling about it.

He also was disturbed when Trump’s lawyers agreed with Lindsey Graham’s suggestion that even if Trump had extorted the Ukrainian president, that wasn’t an impeachable offense. (“The answer stunned Romney.”) Again, this seems to be a matter of degree and not disagreement compared with Romney’s willingness to vote with his caucus as long as Trump’s strong-arming wasn’t “explicit.”

In the end, Romney prayed about it. He also visited with Joe Manchin—and I believe it’s on Manchin’s houseboat where Romney had the revelation that passes as the closest we’ll get to a definitive reason for Romney’s decision. “We’re both 72,” he told Manchin. “We should probably be thinking about oaths and legacy, not just reelection.”

Mitt’s father, George, famously advised his son, “Never get involved in politics if you have to win election to pay a mortgage.” I guess the elder Romney thought the reasoning for why that’s a good idea was obvious: It means you don’t have to worry about keeping your job. George was talking about “fuck you” money, something he made good use of: Not caring if he never won another election was why he could be so blunt about the Vietnam War that he tanked his political career; so unvarnished about racism in his party he was never allowed to lead it again. Mitt Romney’s mother, Lenore Romney, ran for Senate as a Republican in Michigan in 1970 with the same moneyed irreverence: She was anti-war, spoke out against the Cambodian incursion, and—well, according to Mitt—was pro-choice. (Does getting rich first inevitably adjust your ideas of right and wrong so that you’ll never get, you know, too principled? Maybe! A discussion for another time.)

Mitt, literalist that he is, appears to have understood that he should be wealthy before running for office; unlike his father, however, he didn’t use that financial independence to act independently. He has had a heaping pile of fuck-you money for half a century. Which is to say, why did Mitt Romney ever compromise his values in pursuit of political office? Why did he ever think about anything besides his legacy?

The 47 percent quote and the vote against Trump might seem like the opposing poles of Romney’s political career; maybe you think one redeems the other. But those two incidents belong together in any assessment of the man: They are flip sides of Romney’s most enduring trait—a desire to transmute all his privilege into something resembling leadership. Whether or not one believes he’s finally succeeded at that goal depends on your estimation of whether Romney’s occasional sallies at Trump put anything meaningful at risk. As he decamps from Washington, simultaneously relieved and chastened, to the happy home his wealth built, it sure doesn’t seem like he’s lost very much. For all his agita over the Trump era, his legacy is this: He is one of a very few fortunate souls who came through it unscathed.