When former president Donald Trump reacted last week to the publication of McKay Coppins' Romney: A Reckoning by calling both book and subject "boring, horrible, and totally predictable," the GOP presidential front-runner brought up the single best illustration of why Romney as a would-be Trump-slayer was fatally flawed.
"Does he mention his late night dinner with me at Trump International Hotel when he begged to be Secretary of State, then giving GLOWING COMMENTS about DJT at a follow up News Conference?" the 45th president Truth-Socialed. "I didn't give him the job, NOR DID I EVER INTEND TO. I JUST WANTED TO PROVE A POINT, THAT MITT ROMNEY IS, & ALWAYS HAS BEEN, A LIGHTWEIGHT JOKE!"
Like so many Trump insults, this Mitt-slap was gratuitously cruel, cartoonishly self-aggrandizing, and not a small amount true. Romney, who is retiring from elected office on the same day Trump may yet regain the presidency, is the latest in a long line of political actors whose attempts to come at the king were derailed by their own grubby and exploitable ambitions. Less than eight months after noisily denouncing Trump as a "phony" and a "fraud," here was the 2012 GOP standard-bearer dutifully gushing about his "wonderful evening" with the guy: the price to pay for a potential Cabinet slot.
"It's like, you know, I wanted to be president," Romney explained to Coppins in one of his 45 interviews with the author between March 2021 and May 2023. "If you can't be president, being secretary of state's not a bad spot to come thereafter." It's like, we know.
After Trump sealed the presidential nomination in early May of 2016, most of the GOP quickly fell in line. The holdouts tended to emanate from three camps: Foreign policy hawks (like John McCain and Lindsey Graham), libertarian-leaners (Mark Sanford and Justin Amash), and Romney's co-religionists in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah) was the noisiest rebel at the 2016 Republican National Convention, and when the Access Hollywood "grab 'em by the pussy" tape came out in October 2016, Mormons such as Sen. Mike Crapo (R–Idaho) led the stampede of withdrawn endorsements. "Americans deserve far better than @RealDonaldTrump," tweeted then-Sen. Jeff Flake (R–Ariz.).
Flake and Lee, similarly to McCain and Graham, embody the basic do-or-die choice for elected-Republican Trump skeptics in the contemporary GOP: fight and leave, or accommodate and stay. Flake tangled with Trump for a year and a half, saw his popularity plummet, then announced his early retirement from the Senate. Lee, who Trump twice short-listed for Supreme Court nominations, became chummy enough with the president that after Joe Biden's November 2020 electoral victory, the constitutional conservative "spent a month encouraging the idea of having State legislatures endorse competing electors for Trump," according to the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. (Lee did, however, vote to certify the election, unlike seven of his Senate Republican colleagues.)
Romney, to his credit, chose to rush headlong into the building where conservative political reputations go to burn, deciding right around the time of Flake's retreat that he would seek to fill the shoes of a retiring Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. (Trump, ever vindictive, almost talked Hatch out of it.) Romney hadn't even been sworn in before declaring ostentatiously in The Washington Post that the Trump presidency was in "deep descent" due to issues of low character, dodgy personnel, and insufficiently interventionist foreign policy.
"I will act as I would with any president, in or out of my party," he solemnly swore. "I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state, and oppose those that are not. I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault. But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions."
National political journalists and commentators, ever-alert for fresh anti-Trump meat, welcomed this new face of the Resistance. (Romney had already buttered their bread with a pre-election essay titled "The Free Press, a Pillar of Democracy.") But by nodding along with the senator-elect's critique that Trump was "anti-immigrant," they missed one helluva man-bites-dog story. The real estate mogul and television star indeed used immigration restrictionism to catapult himself over the crowded 2016 GOP field. But it was a political innovation that he lifted directly from his predecessor.
Romney, as an impossibly rich ex-blue-state governor with malleable views on abortion and gun rights, did not have his finger on the pulse of the conservative grassroots, to put it mildly. Voters detected in him an empty if expensive suit, a skylarking super-capitalist with a daddy complex, an ideological cipher with spreadsheets where his heart should be. Pounding the table loudest on illegal immigration was his way to build those bonds and separate himself from the 2008 GOP pack.
Romney brutalized and eventually dislodged longtime front-runner Rudy Giuliani over the former New York mayor's support for "sanctuary cities," then nearly blasted John McCain out of the race for his longtime advocacy (soon to be renounced) for the same comprehensive immigration reform that Romney had supported as recently as 2005.
Anytime some competitor for the 2012 GOP nomination would inch ahead of him, Romney would ratchet up the border rhetoric. He accused Texas Gov. Rick Perry of creating a "magnet for illegal immigration" via in-state tuition for the undocumented, then when Newt Gingrich took a brief lead, Romney tapped the brain trust of noted restrictionist (and future Trump collaborator) Kris Kobach to craft a policy called "self-deportation."
It has largely been forgotten in the insanity of subsequent events, but there was something near a consensus in professional Republican circles that Romney's defeat against Barack Obama was at least partly attributable to his immigration politics. "We weren't inclusive," then–party chair Reince Priebus said while unveiling the official GOP 2012 "autopsy," which recommended putting comprehensive immigration reform back in the party platform. "We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too," the report concluded.
One key figure who agreed with that critique—at least initially—was none other than Donald Trump. "He had a crazy policy of self-deportation which was maniacal," Trump complained to Newsmax. "It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote….He lost the Asian vote. He lost everybody who is inspired to come into this country."
The fact that these two men would within six years essentially switch sides on such an important, complicated, and emotional issue suggests a fertile ground for journalistic exploration and self-examination. And yet Romney: A Reckoning, which is cast as a portrait of a man grappling with his own role in creating the politics he came to oppose, is remarkably mute on the topic.
We learn only in passing, through the prism of Obama's attack lines, that Romney in 2012 endorsed the well-known nativist Rep. Steve King (R–Iowa) and called Kris Kobach a "true leader." And even then that latter snippet of a quote does not begin to convey how much Romney was knowingly plunging himself into the fever swamps of the conspiratorial, anti-immigration right. Here's a broader chunk of that Kobach/Romney press release:
"I'm so proud to earn Kris's support," said Mitt Romney. "Kris has been a true leader on securing our borders and stopping the flow of illegal immigration into this country. We need more conservative leaders like Kris willing to stand up for the rule of law. With Kris on the team, I look forward to working with him to take forceful steps to curtail illegal immigration and to support states like South Carolina and Arizona that are stepping forward to address this problem."
"We need a president who will finally put a stop to a problem that has plagued our country for a generation: millions of illegal aliens coming into the country and taking jobs from United States citizens and legal aliens, while consuming hundreds of billions of dollars in public benefits at taxpayer expense," said Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. "Illegal immigration is a nightmare for America's economy and America's national security. Mitt Romney is the candidate who will finally secure the borders and put a stop to the magnets, like in-state tuition, that encourage illegal aliens to remain in our country unlawfully. He is also the candidate who will stand shoulder to shoulder with the states that are fighting to restore the rule of law. I am pleased to stand with this true conservative."
Romney called for Steve King to resign within his first two weeks in the Senate.
The central antagonist in Romney: A Reckoning is the still-undisputed main player character of American politics from 2015 onward: Donald Trump. The one-term senator will mostly be remembered on Capitol Hill for being the lone Republican vote to impeach Trump in 2020, and one of seven in 2021. He also deserves note for his stirring speech on the Senate floor after the January 6, 2021, riot by Trump supporters hoping to overturn the results of the election.
"We gather [today] due to a selfish man's injured pride and the outrage of his supporters whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning," Romney said, pointing a rhetorical finger at his Republican colleagues who refused to certify the election. "Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy. Fairly or not, they will be remembered for their role in this shameful episode in American history. That will be their legacy."
But as Coppins amply documents, Romney's relationship with Trump over the years has been anything but principled. In February 2012, having won just two of the first four primary/caucus states, and looking to head off a surging Gingrich, the former Massachusetts governor trekked out to the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas two days before the Nevada Caucus and happily accepted a televised endorsement from Donald Trump, whom he praised for his "extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works" and for being "one of the few who has stood up to say China is cheating."
Trump at that point was nearly one year into his high-profile campaign to suggest (as he phrased it to Fox News host Bill O'Reilly) that Barack Obama "doesn't have a birth certificate. He may have one but there's something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim." After sailing to a Nevada caucus victory, and even after sewing up the GOP nomination, Romney continued deploying Trump as one of his key campaign surrogates, waving off the businessman's incessant conspiracy theorizing about the president. "You know, I don't agree with all the people who support me, and my guess is they don't agree with everything I believe in," he said on the trail. "But I need to get to 50.1 percent or more."
The tawdry necessities of politics, of doing gross things to win elections, turn out to tempt Mormons just as much as their heavier-drinking counterparts. And if Romney is any guide, they can be catty as hell, too. Some of the most eyebrow-raising bits in Romney: A Reckoning detail vicious and utterly trivial intra-Mormon feuds—between Romney and Jon Huntsman, Romney and Mike Lee, Romney and a Utah GOP increasingly given over to MAGA. (One of the underexplored relationships in the book, mentioned only on page 301, is Romney's relationship with Ronna McDaniel, Trump's handpicked chair of the Republican National Committee, who awkwardly is Romney's niece.)
The retiring senator's failure to thwart Trump's ambitions is not just attributable to his own compromised history. In strategy, too, Romney fell far short. Coppins details several short-lived flirtations in 2016 with Hail Mary electoral schemes—an independent presidential run himself, an anti-Trump unity ticket with Sens. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R–Texas), an independent bid by the defeated John Kasich, who he otherwise loathed. He spent "a few fruitless weeks after the primaries hunting around for a credible third-party candidate."
Left unmentioned were the two third-party candidates who would have received enormous boosts from a Romney endorsement: Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and independent Utahn Evan McMullin. Romney claimed that if the Libertarian ticket was flipped, with his friend and Massachusetts predecessor Bill Weld at the top, "it would be very easy for me to vote for Bill Weld," but ultimately he balked at Johnson's advocacy for legalizing pot: "Marijuana makes people stupid."
McMullin, a 2012 Romney volunteer, did not receive any meaningful help beyond rented access to Romney's mailing list. While it's doubtful that a Romney endorsement would have pushed McMullin from the 21.5 percent of the vote he received in Utah all the way up to Trump's 45.5 percent, an early, vocal, and energetic endorsement in the Beehive State could have scrambled the Republican's campaign calculations. And Lord knows having a May 2016 endorsement for the Libertarian ticket by the 2012 GOP nominee would have given a lot of fence-sitting Republicans permission to vote for a ticket with two former blue-state Republican governors. Instead of being brave in public, Mitt privately wrote in the name of his wife, Ann.
"I have come to recognize," the subject declares late in Romney: A Reckoning, "that the overwhelming consideration in how people vote is whether it will help or hurt their reelection prospects," adding: "Amazing that a democracy can function like this."
Let this be our lesson, then, from the example of our departing senator. Politics is a low-down racket, with perverse incentives fueled by the public's irritable tempers. Maybe instead of pretending that the cause is noble, if only we had the right champion, let us seek to give the bastards less power to hurt us when they invariably fall short. I'm glad Mitt Romney was in the Senate during Donald Trump's presidency, but I'll be gladder still if we started getting politicians less ideologically opportunistic than either.
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