On Wednesday morning, in the span of about three hours, three bits of news came across my feed on The App Formerly Known as Twitter.
One involved Vivek Ramaswamy, the third-place candidate in Republican presidential primary polling. Ramaswamy was about to announce his plan to “SHUT DOWN the Administrative Deep State” that’s tormented poor Donald Trump these past few years. That means shuttering the FBI and ATF (and, uh, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service), among other agencies, and firing no fewer than 1 million federal workers.
He intends to do this unilaterally as president, whether Congress likes it or not. “Do you want incremental reform?” he planned to say to voters in his prepared remarks. “Or do you want a quantum leap in reviving the ideals of the American Revolution?”
Another tweet involved Ron DeSantis, the second-place candidate in primary polling. DeSantis governs the state with the second-highest percentage of senior citizens. On the day after the FDA approved an updated COVID vaccine booster, his message to his constituents was to think twice before making yourself a “guinea pig” for Big Pharma.
Hours later, his campaign’s rapid response team scolded Trump for refusing to acknowledge the “adverse effects” caused by the vaccines that his administration helped bring to market.
The third tweet involved Mitt Romney announcing that he’s done with politics.
In an interview with the Washington Post explaining his decision to retire, Romney pointed to the fact that the anti-vax slobberer DeSantis and the tinpot authoritarian Ramaswamy are outpolling traditional conservatives like Mike Pence and Nikki Haley. “It’s pretty clear that the party is inclined to a populist demagogue message,” he said.
It is indeed, as readers of this newsletter know. In “a party that loves despicable demagogues,” Mitt Romney was and is a very odd man out.
Although he cited his advancing age and the need for generational change as key to his calculus, one suspects he might have given the Senate another go if he thought the GOP was trending away from demagoguery. He hung on through two impeachments, four indictments, and an insurrection that nearly got him killed, hoping that that series of blows would finally knock some sense into the voters of his party about their choice of leaders. What he got for his patience was Trump leading the GOP primary by 50 points according to the latest national poll.
Having searched hard for glimmers of hope, he found none. And so his retirement feels like a capitulation, not just on his own behalf but on behalf of whatever is left of classical liberalism within the GOP. The party’s over.
I suspect he won’t be a Republican much longer. The question is how many other conservatives will follow him out when he leaves.
After the news broke yesterday, Phil Klein published a piece at National Review whose thesis struck me as churlish: “Mitt Romney Was No Profile in Political Courage.”
Churlish—but not exactly wrong. If you’re measuring political courage by ideological consistency in defiance of popular sentiment, Romney has been one of the least courageous figures in the Republican Party.
Klein has the receipts. In 1994 Romney challenged Ted Kennedy for Senate in Massachusetts by running as a pro-choice squish who identified as independent during the Reagan era. When he was elected governor in 2002, he set about shepherding through a universal health care plan that would lay the conceptual groundwork for Obamacare. By 2007 he had reinvented himself as a staunch social conservative in time for that cycle’s Republican presidential primary. Four years later he had rebranded again as a Tea Party technocrat prone to muttering about the “47 percent” of Americans who mooch off the government.
In a televised photo op that year en route to winning the GOP nomination, he accepted the endorsement of celebrated birth-certificate conspiracy theorist Donald Trump.
His transformation wasn’t done. After winning a Senate seat in 2018, Romney reemerged as something of a populist. Not this kind of populist …
… but the kind of populist who aims to redistribute wealth to working families. In 2021 he introduced a creative proposal to replace the child tax credit with an allowance of up to $4,200 per child (capped at $15,000 per family) with no minimum income requirement. Mr. 47 Percent had come a long way from his previous incarnation as a “severely conservative” right-wing ideologue.
So you see, if political courage means standing firm on policy when doing so would compromise your electability, Mitt Romney is a wimp.
But that’s an awfully crabbed definition of “political courage,” don’t you think?
Let me suggest that political courage also means standing firm on liberal values when doing so might literally get you killed.
Yesterday, Romney biographer McKay Coppins published an excerpt at The Atlantic from his forthcoming book about his conversations with the senator over the past two years. No single quotation here can do justice to the picture it paints of the cowardice and moral corruption of congressional Republicans as Trumpist demagoguery consumed the party. But this one is worth flagging:
After January 6, a new, more existential brand of cowardice had emerged. One Republican congressman confided to Romney that he wanted to vote for Trump’s second impeachment, but chose not to out of fear for his family’s safety. The congressman reasoned that Trump would be impeached by House Democrats with or without him—why put his wife and children at risk if it wouldn’t change the outcome? Later, during the Senate trial, Romney heard the same calculation while talking with a small group of Republican colleagues. When one senator, a member of leadership, said he was leaning toward voting to convict, the others urged him to reconsider. You can’t do that, Romney recalled someone saying. Think of your personal safety, said another. Think of your children.
How long can a democracy last when its elected leaders live in fear of physical violence from their constituents?
Romney recognized the risk to his personal safety and his children’s, then voted to convict Trump anyway. And not for the first time: A year earlier, after Trump’s first impeachment, he became the first senator in American history to vote to convict a president from his own party. Afterward, CPAC chief Matt Schlapp said he wouldn’t invite the senator to that year’s conference because, “I would actually be afraid for his physical safety, people are so mad at him.”
According to Coppins, since the insurrection Romney has spent $5,000 for security for himself and his family. Per day.
Despite the threats and expense, despite the fact that all but a handful of his fellow Republicans in Congress rolled over to appease Trump’s fascist base, he insisted on doing his duty—twice. We should be so lucky as to have a leadership class full of people with the righteous mettle to follow their conscience while being intimidated by feral degenerates. You don’t need to like him or to respect his habit of policy flip-flops to recognize that Mitt Romney has struck a profile in remarkable political courage over the last four years.
Longer than that, actually. The truth is that no prominent figure on the American right has been as clear-eyed about Trump’s unfitness for office for as long as Romney has.
As admirably as Liz Cheney behaved during her final term in the House, she voted for Trump for president twice. Not until the mob came for her on January 6 did she recognize that he couldn’t conscientiously fulfill the duties of the job. Romney was ahead of her by nearly five full years in that assessment—and not off the record, behind closed doors like his gutless colleagues. He was in front of the cameras, making enemies within his party for the sake of speaking the truth.
I’ve said before and will say again here that policy differences are a second-order concern in American politics. We mistake them for first-order concerns because we have the luxury of living in a country where first-order concerns were traditionally taken for granted. Shall we have liberal democracy or autocracy? Does character matter in leadership or not? Is physical intimidation a proper tool of political influence? Both sides broadly agreed on first-order questions until recently, so we turned to second-order questions to decide which side should govern.
Mitt Romney has been cynical and opportunistic on second-order questions during his career. But on first-order questions, he’s the best the American right has to offer. It’s true that he and J.D. Vance, about whom Romney expressed scathing contempt in Coppins’ piece, have each flip-flopped in the past for the sake of ambition. But they’ve flip-flopped on different orders. Romney reversed himself on the second-order question of which abortion policy the country should follow. Vance reversed himself on the first-order question of whether fascism is good.
“A very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution,” Romney told Coppins at one point during their chats, identifying a quintessential first-order concern. Already the Senate Republican caucus has seen several traditional conservatives give way to J.D. Vances; with the departure of Romney himself, skeptics of the Constitution will likely gain more influence inside Congress. “The more these people leave, they’re going to be replaced by uglier and uglier folks,” Bulwark writer Tim Miller said yesterday of Romney’s announcement.
That being so, one wonders how much longer a man who does believe in the Constitution can last in this party.
“Throughout our two years of interviews, I heard Romney muse repeatedly about leaving the GOP. He’d stayed long after he stopped feeling at home there—long after his five sons had left—because he felt a quixotic duty to save it,” Coppins writes. But lately “it was hard to dispute that the battle for the GOP’s soul had been lost.”
In April, Romney pivoted to a new idea: He privately approached Joe Manchin about building a new political party. They’d talked about the prospect before, but it was always hypothetical. Now Romney wanted to make it real. His goal for the yet-unnamed party (working slogan: “Stop the stupid”) would be to promote the kind of centrist policies he’d worked on with Manchin in the Senate. Manchin was himself thinking of running for president as an independent, and Romney tried to convince him this was the better play. Instead of putting forward its own doomed candidate in 2024, Romney argued, their party should gather a contingent of like-minded donors and pledge support to the candidate who came closest to aligning with its agenda. “We’d say, ‘This party’s going to endorse whichever party’s nominee isn’t stupid,’ ” Romney told me.
April happens to be the same month that Trump’s national lead over Ron DeSantis ballooned from 30 points to 45 following his first indictment in Manhattan. Go figure that seeing his party’s base rally behind an accused felon instead of turning its back on him might have been the last straw causing Mitt Romney to finally get serious about a third party.
Forgive me for a moment of naivete, but I wonder how many other traditional conservatives now staring down the barrel of not just a Trump nomination but a Trump coronation—despite the insurrection, despite the impeachments, despite the indictments—might also be nearing the point where enough is, at last, enough.
Romney isn’t the only data point here, remember. Last week Mike Pence called right-wing populism a “road to ruin” and declared the gap between it and conservatism “unbridgeable.” If the populists running for president this year end up squashing the conservatives (and right now the two factions are running at about 75/25 collectively) then Pence might also be forced into a hard conclusion about whether he still has a place in the GOP.
Think of it: The last Republican vice president and the last Republican nominee for president before Trump could each be former Republicans sooner rather than later. A landslide Trump victory in the primary might finally convince them that the party in its current form is unsalvageable. And if that’s enough to convince them, it may be enough to convince a meaningful number of rank-and-file conservative voters.
It could break the party. In theory.
But I’m too cynical to take that theory very seriously.
I doubt Mike Pence will ever leave. When the candidates were asked at last month’s Republican debate whether they’ll still support Trump if he’s convicted of a crime before the election, Pence (reluctantly) raised his hand. He also signed the RNC’s pledge before the debate committing to back the nominee next year no matter who it might be. The rhetoric in his speech last week is impossible to reconcile with his continued membership in a party that would renominate Trump by near-acclamation, but I suspect he’ll find some way to do it. He’s only 64, after all, and will probably never give up his dream of becoming president. If forced to choose between kowtowing to populism for the sake of ambition and disowning the party in which he’s spent his entire adult life, he’ll make the same choice that he made every day as Trump’s vice president—every day, that is, except one.
Most rank-and-file conservative partisans will do the same. The right’s information gatekeepers have worked very hard to persuade them that the most corrupt, amoral, unfit Republican remains preferable as a leader to any Democrat. Tribalism will keep them in line.
But Mitt Romney, God love him, really is on his way out, I think. And a small but hopefully decisive number of traditional conservatives may be going with him.
The fact that he’s thinking about forming a third party aimed at funneling votes toward the most centrist candidate on the ballot makes me suspect that he grasps the reality of the GOP “hostage crisis” about which I’ve written numerous times. Jonathan Last wrote about it on Thursday too, quoting a line from Dune: “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.” Trump and his populist bloc control the GOP because they’re willing to destroy it; if they don’t get their way in primaries, they’ll boycott the general election and doom the party to defeat.
They may posture as the most firebreathing lib-haters in the Republican Party, but when push comes to shove they’d rather see Democrats in charge of the government than traditional conservatives. That’s the source of their power. It’s past time for conservatives to exert their own power by demonstrating a similar willingness to boycott the general election if the party doesn’t shape up. If Trump’s impending coronation means nothing else, it’s that the GOP won’t reform organically. Populism will need to be beaten out of it at the polls.
Having spent eight years waiting for organic change that never came, Romney seems to have awakened to that reality. I wish him luck with his third-party plans. Perhaps his political legacy isn’t finished yet.
But if it is, remember him not as a “saint,” not even as a particularly good conservative, but as a man who behaved with honor and did right by his country under immense pressure to do otherwise. That’s all any of us can hope to be. Patriots will remember him fondly for it.