First, some praise for Mitt Romney, who is apparently poised to run for the Senate from Utah now that Orrin Hatch has announced his retirement.
The 2012 Republican presidential nominee is a man of honor, decency and serious accomplishment. His attempt to rally Republican opposition to Donald Trump in 2016 was an exemplary act that threw the cowardice of his party’s establishment into sharp relief. And his willingness to re-enter public service at a time when other Trump-skeptical Republicans are running for the exits (and when he could be enjoying a very comfortable retirement with his 1,765 grandchildren) shows an old-fashioned spiritedness that his party’s hollow men conspicuously lack.
But now, some criticism. For all that he is upright and decent and loves his country, Romney was also part of #HowYouGotTrump, and what he might have to offer today depends to some extent on whether he realizes it, and whether he’s learned anything from his presidential defeat and the weirdness that’s engulfed his party since.
Romney’s direct role in Trump’s ascent was modest but telling. He didn’t just accept the Trump imprimatur in his campaign against Barack Obama; he flew to Las Vegas to have the endorsement bestowed upon him, issued some flattering words about his endorser’s awesome business acumen and essentially averted his eyes from the conspiracy theories about Obama’s origins that Trump was then enthusiastically peddling.
Like most prominent Republicans at the time, Romney no doubt assumed that the fever swamp stuff didn’t need to be attacked, that it would evaporate once the GOP won back the White House. But instead the fever swamp stuff helped hand the party to Trump himself, and the birther’s grip-and-grin with an uncomfortable Romney was a small but notable milestone on that path.
The larger, indirect role that Romney played in Trump’s ascent was in the way he ran and lost in 2012. There were times when the Man From Bain Capital seemed to have some sense of the populist discontents that Trump successfully played upon four years later. Romney’s rhetoric on China and immigration was a more restrained version of Trump’s nationalist pitch, and here and there he tried to imitate Franklin Roosevelt’s promise, updated crudely by Trump, to be a traitor to his successful class.
But not nearly often enough. Instead, the defining pitch of the Romney campaign was the tone-deaf “you built that,” which valorized entrepreneurs and ignored ordinary workers; the defining policy blueprint was a tax-reform proposal that offered little or nothing to the middle class; and the defining gaffe was the famous “47 percent” line, in which Romney succumbed, before an audience of Richie Riches, to the Ayn Randian temptation to write off struggling Americans as losers.
As a result, whether in his father’s Michigan, in his running mate’s Wisconsin, or in Pennsylvania where he campaigned hopefully near the end, downscale white voters who could have gone Republican either voted for Obama or stayed home. And in that failure lay the opportunity that Trump intuited — for a Republican candidate who would rhetorically reject and even run against the kind of corporation-first conservatism that Romney seemed to embody and embrace.
Since taking office, of course, Trump has mostly turned his back on his own economic populism — and lost much of his modest-to-begin-with popularity in the process. But in that time, the men who imagine themselves the party’s stewards or its conscience have learned little from the way he beat them and then beat the Democrats. They are still suffering from what Pete Spiliakos, in a withering column for First Things last month, called “The Romney Disease” — a condition that combines admirable personal probity and decency with an abiding commitment to unpopular economic policies.
The best of the current Republicans (the Paul Ryans, the Ben Sasses, the Mitt Romneys) have certain common features that should be appealing to the electorate. They seem to have the home life of the family man. They have the discipline and diligence of the organization kid. They have the looks of the pretty boy. Yet the public still rejects them, because the voters find their ideas even more unpleasant than Trump’s odious personality.
If Romney joins the Utah Senate race, and ultimately the Senate, there will be a lot of talk about the service he can perform for his country by resisting the worst of Trumpism. But he could also perform a service by showing that he has learned something from watching Trumpism succeed where his own campaign failed — which would mean steering a different and more populist course than those NeverTrump Republicans who pine for a party of the purest libertarianism, and those OkayFineTrump Republicans who are happy now that Trump has given them their corporate tax cut.
Right now there is a small caucus in the Republican Party for a different way, for a conservatism that seeks to cure itself of Romney Disease by becoming genuinely pro-worker rather than waiting for a worse demagogue than Trump to come along. Did I say small? I meant very small: It basically consists of Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of (ahem) Utah, plus perhaps Arkansas’ Tom Cotton and a few other figures trying to adapt to Trumpism rather than just surviving it.
But one high-profile square-jawed junior senator could make that caucus feel much larger. Why shouldn’t the cure for Romney Disease begin with Mitt himself?
Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for theatlantic.com.