I was wrong about Mitt Romney

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The Donald Trump phenomenon is purported to have divided friendships, families, and even marriages. I can attest to this fact in my own suburban Washington household, for this perhaps peculiar professional reason: It has occasioned my wife, the longtime sufferer of all my hot takes, to ask approximately one-thousand times whether I finally feel bad about all the mean things I said about Mitt Romney.

The short answer is, yes!

Romney, now the junior senator of Utah, has displayed rare courage and integrity throughout this hell-year. Alone among Republican senators (indeed, alone among any senator in history), he crossed party lines to vote to convict President Trump on the charge of abusing his power by pressuring a foreign government to interfere in our election. And — not alone, exactly, but hardly in plentiful company — he has forthrightly condemned the president for stonewalling the Biden transition and undermining our democracy.

These actions have taken real guts. If I were wearing a cap, I would doff it; if I were to meet Romney in person, I would thank him. With this virtual pen in hand, I am applauding him.

However: The long answer to the above question is … Heck no!

Let me explain why I’m torn.

First, it’s essential to remember how radically different our political landscape looked in the Before Times. The outright bigotry and racism of the 2016 Trump campaign had not yet been contemplated, let alone assimilated; for decades, those things were hinted at, dog-whistled, wink-winked — but they were not, in any overt sense, options on the menu given to Republican primary voters. Consequently, it needs to be said that it’s silly to retroactively credit figures in the party for not behaving that badly.

So, what was it that bugged me so badly about mainstream, milquetoast Mitt?

In 2007 and 2008, Romney, then the moderate one-term governor of Massachusetts (as well as the son of a famously moderate governor of Michigan) ran a primary campaign that was, I still maintain, preposterous. It was predicated on the notion that frontrunner John McCain (who, after a tumultuous summer in ’07, eventually won the GOP nomination) was too moderate. He compromised too often with Democrats (with Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform; with Ted Kennedy on immigration; with Joe Lieberman on climate change).

I understand the imperatives of strategy in winning a primary, when you must appeal to the base before pivoting to the center. But — as I said then and will say again now — I refuse to listen to such an appeal from mainstream milquetoast Mitt. He did not play the Mr. Conservative act lightly; he played it, as he plays everything, stiffly. The act failed. It deserved to fail.

Then came 2012. Romney was now something of a frontrunner. He had lost the 2008 primary — but so had McCain, badly, in the general election against President Obama. It was now, in the sequential custom of Republican politics, “Mitt Romney’s turn.” So now he was the one who had to beat back attempts to protect his right flank. Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee (am I forgetting anyone? It feels like I’m forgetting someone!) — they all took their shots at Romney; they all exposed weaknesses or wounded him; and they all, one after the other, failed as he had four years before.

Without aid of Google, I remember calling Romney a “rancid imposter” (yikes!). With aid of Google, I see that I called his 2012 campaign “breathtakingly cynical, borderline nihilistic” (I hadn’t seen nothin’ yet!). I haven’t forgotten about the catastrophic 47 percent video. And I sure haven’t forgotten about the way Romney comported himself in the first innings of the Benghazi fiasco (reminder: He really was breathtakingly cynical).

But, with the benefit of both hindsight and five years of Donald Trump, here’s what I’ve come to appreciate about Mitt Romney, a man of obvious high character and basic decency, that wasn’t clear to me then, but should have been: He was trying to hold together a party that was morally coming apart at the seams. Indeed, Romney could see for himself that it was thirsting for a demagogue very like Trump (whose endorsement, it must be noted, Romney accepted). “It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments,” he said in February 2012. “We’ve seen throughout the campaign that if you’re willing to say really outrageous things that are accusatory and attacking President Obama that you’re going to jump up in the polls. You know, I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am who I am.”

It took guts to say that then. I didn’t acknowledge it at the time. I should have.

When the notional threat of Trump became a reality in 2016, Romney, again, took a stand. In March of that fateful year, Romney warned against nominating a “con man, a fake.” Every word of the speech was born out by the reality of the Trump administration. Not just the bits about Trump’s warped character — but the red flags over Trump’s desire for a trade war and his embrace of prodigious debt.

Of course, Romney being Romney, he sullied his righteous stand by agreeing to dine with Trump during the transition, under the guise of possibly being nominated for secretary of state. Predictably, Romney was humiliated. But that was the last time.

Very much on his own shingle, Romney won a Senate seat in Utah. From there, he has become one of the bravest and most constructive voices in Republican politics. And while I may regret the excessive tone of some of my criticisms of Mitt Romney’s past, I can say that I look forward to applauding him more often in the future.

“Sorry, Mitt”? Not quite.

Instead: Go, Mitt, go!

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