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I Read the Mitt Romney Book and I Think I Like Mitt Romney Now
On the eve of the 2012 election, I did something that today feels unthinkable: I went to bed well before the result was called.
Pretty confident from 538’s forecast that Obama would win—and pretty confident that, if he didn’t, it wouldn’t be the end of the world—I turned in early. When I woke up the next morning and saw that Obama had indeed won, I smiled briefly and moved on with my day, and barely thought about the election again.
I was reminded of these simpler political times as I read Romney: A Reckoning, McKay Coppins’ new biography, which paints Romney as the last sane Republican, a kind and decent man adrift in a party that’s left him behind.
Fathers and Sons
In Ambition & Contentment, I wrote about how pretty much every U.S. president, and many presidential candidates, had a fucked-up relationship with their father. Romney both confirms and subverts this archetype.
The elder Romney, George, was a popular Michigan governor who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968. Through history’s oversimplified lens, he’s remembered mainly for his remark that he had been “brainwashed” by the U.S. military into supporting the Vietnam war. This gaffe is widely seen as having killed his campaign, though realistically, George—a liberal Republican who marched for civil rights and introduced Michigan’s first state income tax—had pretty slim odds of victory regardless.
Father and son had, by all accounts, a loving and uncomplicated personal relationship. But Mitt Romney spends his entire political career wrestling with his father’s legacy. He admires his father’s willingness to speak his mind and take principled stances, but he also sees those attributes as politically suicidal. His entire political persona—cautious, scripted, and never straying too far from the party’s base—is a reaction to what he sees as his father’s mistakes. In a moment Freud would have a field day with, Romney makes everyone working for his 2008 campaign read an 88-page paper about the failures of his father’s campaign.
Of course, as is the case in any good Greek tragedy, you can’t avoid your fate, no matter how hard you try. Romney’s obsessive attempts to avoid a brainwashing-like gaffe make him seem robotic and unrelatable. (His staffers call their efforts to keep him on script the “Mittness protection program.”) He makes compromise after compromise to stay within the mainstream of the party, but this just makes him seem hopelessly inauthentic. And none of it prevents his campaign from being defined by a single gaffe just like his father’s was: his offhand remark that 47% of Americans are “dependent on the government and believe they are victims.”
I found the book’s depiction of Romney’s mental state in the aftermath of the 47% remark to be quite moving. The comments themselves were horrible, of course, but who among us doesn’t know the feeling of having said something stupid that we immediately regret? Romney refuses to blame anyone but himself—“the problem is me,” he writes in his journal—and sinks into a deep depression. He’s devastated by the way he’s let down everyone who supports him, especially his campaign staff. He even goes so far as to ask his top advisor if he should drop out and let another Republican take his place on the ticket, a ridiculous idea with the election just six weeks out.
It's only during his final campaign, for Utah’s senate seat, that he seems to finally come to peace with his father’s legacy. With nothing left to lose, his campaign adopts a “Let Mitt Be Mitt” strategy1. As a result, he actually enjoys campaigning for the first time in his life. (Romney’s intense hatred of Iowa is a hilarious recurring bit throughout the book.) And this time, of course, he wins.
Romney and Obama, Sitting in a Tree
During the 2012 campaign, Romney developed a genuine hatred of Barack Obama. And I get the sense that Obama’s distaste for Romney was pretty genuine too—he always seemed to dislike Romney far more than he’d disliked McCain in 2008.
Reading this book, though, I realized that Obama and Romney are actually quite similar—far more similar than any other pair of presidential opponents in my lifetime. They’re both professorial (Romney, it turns out, seriously considered going into academia to study English lit until a professor talked him out of it), and they’re both relatively non-ideological figures who think of themselves as analyzing each problem in isolation and searching for the best solution rather than applying a pre-existing ideological lens. They both seem to believe—inaccurately—that if they can just explain themselves well enough, they can talk their opponents into seeing how reasonable they are. And they’re both motivated to run for president not because they have some kind of grand vision, but because they see themselves as having the temperament and intelligence to best do the job. (Romney’s deep-seated belief that of the 2012 Republican field, he alone could do the job well comes off as phenomenally egotistical… until you remember who the rest of the candidates were.)
I wouldn’t say Romney and Obama ever reached a true rapprochement, but the enmity between them cooled after the election. Romney later acknowledged that the intensity of his dislike for Obama was mostly a psychological coping mechanism during the campaign, and Obama sent Romney a handwritten note praising him for his courage after he voted to impeach Trump.
“A Club for Old Men”
I’ve always wondered why congresspeople seem so desperate to be reelected.
The Republican party’s capitulation to Trump is largely a story of elected officials making compromise after compromise to avoid losing their seats. One anonymous senator gives Romney some friendly advice early on: when voting on any bill, your first concern should be “will this help me win reelection?” Only then should you consider the bill’s impact on your constituents.
But being a senator doesn’t exactly seem like the most amazing job in the world, and being an ex-senator is pretty cushy. (As Kyrsten Sinema tells Romney, explaining why she’s not stressed about the possibility of losing reelection: “I can go on any board I want to. I can be a college president. I can do anything.”)
Why, then, are these people so desperate to keep their jobs?
In Romney’s view, the answer is a mix of ego and sublimated fear of death. The Senate is, in his words, “a club for old men,” with cushy facilities, free meals, and on-site barbers and doctors. It’s a pretty nice place to spend all your time, especially if you don’t want to work hard—and many don’t. (One senator tells Romney, “20 of us do all the work and the other 80 are just along for the ride.”)
In some cases, this laziness even extends to their time in the Senate gym. Romney calls out Richard Burr for not even bothering to change clothes—he walks on the treadmill at a leisurely pace in his suit pants and loafers.
Meanwhile, these old men have become so afraid of retirement and irrelevancy that the prospect of losing their job becomes psychically intertwined with the idea of death itself. Almost any compromise becomes justified because the stakes are existential. It’s a grim portrait that will make you even more pessimistic about our government than you already were—and that will make you really want age limits for elected officials.
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Portrait of a Justifier
All powerful people have made moral compromises to attain their power, but Romney comes off as uniquely obsessive in finding ways to justify his compromises. During his first campaign in Massachusetts, for example, he knows he can’t win as a pro-lifer, so he scrutinizes Mormon doctrine with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar to find a way to present himself as neutral on the issue, even though it’s not what he really believes. (His equivocating leads to Ted Kennedy’s excellent zinger that he is pro-choice, while Romney is “multiple-choice.”) Voters, of course, don’t care about these technicalities—Romney is seeking a way to justify his choices to himself.
Similar examples abound throughout his career. Romney finds Rube Goldberg-esque ways to convince himself that he hasn’t compromised or changed his position, even when he evidently has.
He clearly sees these justifications as helping him be slightly more honest. But his example actually convinced me that these tortured justifications are less honest than just saying, This is bullshit, but I’m doing what I need to do to win. Success in politics requires some level of lying (or, more generously, pandering) to your voters. In the end, admitting that to yourself is more honest than searching for technicalities.
This dynamic helps explain something I learned from the book that surprised me at first: Romney despises senators like J.D. Vance who are obviously faking their Trumpiness. But he has productive relationships with senators like Ron Johnson, the full-on conspiracy theorists who come by their Trumpiness genuinely.
This contrast makes sense when you consider the fact that the traits we hate most in others are the ones that remind us of ourselves. I came to see Romney’s loathing for the J.D. Vance types as a form of sublimated self-loathing: he knows on some level, and once or twice even comes close to admitting, that if he too were young and had his whole political career ahead of him, he might very well make the same compromises. But there’s nothing of himself to hate in the genuinely insane Ron Johnson types.
All biographies are at least a little bit hagiography, the critical ones included. Even The Power Broker, which taught a whole generation to hate Robert Moses, contains long stretches where its author marvels at Moses’ intelligence and skill, and even at his muscularity.
Romney: A Reckoning doesn’t avoid this trap. Its author clearly likes and admires Romney, and by the book’s end, so did I. It’s a reminder that no matter how much you dislike a politician in the moment, there can always be someone so much worse waiting around the corner, ready to make you long for the halcyon days when the worst-case scenario was President Mitt Romney.