The retiring Utah senator was caught between tradition and radicalism
When Mitt Romney announced on Wednesday that he would not be seeking re-election for his Utah Senate seat in 2024, it represented one more milestone in the Republican Party’s transformation from the country club patrician-led coalition of yesteryear to the populist political force of today.
His inability to fit in with the demands of the Trump era increasingly made him the odd man out (or in his own words, the “turd in the punchbowl”). He opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016, and later went on to become the lone Republican Senator to vote for the then-President’s impeachment following the events at the Capitol on 6 January.
An upcoming book is set to highlight just how deep that rift with his party has become. Entitled Romney: A Reckoning, it promises to be a tell-all treatment of Romney’s time in the Senate, with details on how longtime Republican legislators flattered and indulged Trump while mocking him behind his back.
A notable tidbit is his disappointment over his colleagues’ collective inaction during the events at the Capitol on 6 January, when he sent Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a fretful text message warning him about the President’s tacit encouragement of the prospect of mob violence. McConnell didn’t respond. Republican leaders are reportedly afraid of how such revelations will make them look, making the book an especially fitting leaving present from the retiring junior senator from Utah. It is safe to say that he will not be missed in Washington.
For most of his career, Romney was a reliable avatar for the ethos of the Reagan-Bush era, with its faith in tax cuts and American exceptionalism. As the party’s nominee for president in 2012, when the economy was still recovering from the financial crash and recession triggered under the last Republican administration, he hardly stood a chance. The irony was that he was running against a Democratic incumbent whose signature policy, “Obamacare”, had been based on “Romneycare”, a model of universal market-based health insurance he had once pioneered as Governor of Massachusetts.
This belies an important thread about Romney’s legacy. He once almost perfectly embodied all the strains of the pre-populist GOP — watching footage of his 2012 speeches is like visiting a museum of failed Republican priorities, from free trade to foreign interventionism to defending the rights of big corporations to the choice of Paul Ryan as VP. But hidden underneath this deference to conservative orthodoxy, there was also a pragmatic and reformist streak that would come out in subsequent years.
Following his defeat to Barack Obama, Romney began to reinvent himself as a new kind of conservative, with a greater concern for the struggling working class (whom he had once alienated with his infamous “47%” remark) and broader inequality. When he ran for the Senate a second time in 2018, he wasn’t just a symbol of NeverTrump resistance against the sitting president but also a conduit for novel policy perspectives that conservatives weren’t used to holding.
Romney later came to champion these ideas in the Senate: family policy, mandatory E-Verify to control immigration (which Trump failed to endorse as president), and support for renewed investments in America’s crumbling industrial base. Even as he sparred with the younger populist generation, represented by the likes of Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance, over their support for Trump, he effectively converged with them in philosophical terms, coming to accept a more proactive role for the state. In this sense, Romney, much like Biden on the centre-left, is a transitional figure in the as-yet-uncertain trajectory of the American Right.
Perhaps if the Republican Party of Romney’s generation had been less wedded to blind support of the free market and more open to this type of pragmatic conservatism, it could have addressed the underlying problems of America’s dysfunctional society and economy, and pre-empted the coming of a disruptor like Trump. In that universe, Mitt Romney would be sent off as a beloved elder statesman, rather than as a scorned pariah.