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A Reckoning

Mitt Romney, Master of Self-Justification

The senator has always wrestled with his conscience—and compromise.

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

In 1967, Mitt Romney saw his father fall.

George Romney, the liberal Republican governor of Michigan, was running a presidential campaign somewhat antithetical to the shifting principles of his party. When he was elected governor in 1963, the older Romney had insisted that the state’s “most urgent human rights problem is racial discrimination”; at the 1964 Republican National Convention, he issued a scathing rebuke of presidential nominee Barry Goldwater and his extremist vision. Three years later, as Richard Nixon pursued his “Southern strategy” to attract white voters, Romney toured inner cities and met with civil rights leaders. He had also become critical of the war in Vietnam, and told an interviewer that he had been subject to “brainwashing” by dissembling political and military officials. The inartful metaphor proved the downfall of his campaign, and George Romney dropped out of the race.

Romney: A Reckoning
by McKay Coppins
Scribner Book Company, 416 pp., $32.50

Mitt was in France on a Mormon mission at the time. He didn’t understand “the sweeping realignment taking place in U.S. politics as conservatives completed their conquest of the GOP,” McKay Coppins writes in his new biography, Romney: A Reckoning. “What he did know, and what would stick with him for the rest of his life, was that a single poorly chosen word in a local TV interview had abruptly cut short his father’s march to the White House.”

Coppins, a journalist at The Atlantic, leaves the reader to judge whether this was the correct lesson for Romney to learn. His book presents two battling Romneys. There is the Mitt Romney who chased “political savvy” against his own better instincts—as when he courted and accepted Donald Trump’s endorsement in 2012, when Trump was first gaining popularity among Republican voters for promulgating the racist lie that President Barack Obama was born outside of the United States. And then there’s the Mitt Romney who, publicly dismayed by Trump’s ascent in 2016, purported to follow in his father’s footsteps, the very model of integrity in public service, standing still amid the “once-in-a-generation realignment” in his party.

The “reckoning” in the title of Coppins’s book is, of course, an examination of Romney’s life and career—but it’s also an assessment of the tensions on the Republican Party, which Romney, though he may distance himself from its worst tendencies, uniquely embodies. For Romney has been alternately the standard-bearer of the Republican Party and its pariah, an opponent of Trump and an enabler, an opportunist and a holdout. There may be no other politician currently in office whose career choices track so closely the compromises the Republican Party establishment has justified to win.

Born in Detroit in 1947, Romney was the beloved youngest child and family “caboose,” spending more time with his father than his much-older siblings. He spent time with George at the offices of American Motors, where his father served as CEO, and had a front-row seat to the elder Romney’s political ascent. Despite his parents’ frugal tendency, Mitt was a child of wealth and privilege, carrying himself with “rich-kid carelessness,” Coppins writes; despite being arrested three times as a teenager, he never garnered a criminal record, “in part because he was white and wealthy and the son of a governor.”

But two life-changing events grounded the impish troublemaker in his young adulthood: beginning a relationship with his future wife, Ann, and his 30-month Mormon mission in Le Havre, France. As a missionary, Romney experienced hardship for the first time, residing in a series of shabby apartments and facing rejection from dismissive townspeople. He found meaning in these difficulties but was soon confronted with a significant trauma: He was driving several mission leaders when another car crashed into his, injuring Romney and killing the wife of France’s Mormon mission president. “Romney had become violently acquainted with the fact of his own mortality,” Coppins writes, a preoccupation with death that would follow him for the rest of his life. This newfound sense of existential hurry stoked his ambition as he completed his college education at Brigham Young University, attended Harvard Business School, and began a career as a management consultant, which led to a lucrative career at Bain Capital.

Romney’s deep commitment to his faith did not undermine his talent for rationalization. During his time at Bain Capital, he discovered “a remarkable ability to justify his choices to himself,” Coppins writes. He could rationalize the layoffs that came when Bain-owned companies shut down factories, leaving hundreds of workers adrift and the local economies in free fall. Although his conscience was “well developed and frankly rather pushy,” Coppins writes, Romney “found it could sometimes be appeased with sufficient effort.” It was a habit that Romney would hone during his time in politics.

In 1999, Romney took over the management of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which had been embroiled in scandal—the bid committee had been accused of bribing Olympic officials, spooking sponsors and discouraging fundraising. Romney, who had a penchant for stepping into crisis situations, was credited with turning around the fiscal situation and producing the successful games, which took on weighted meaning after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Later that year he was elected governor in Massachusetts, where he developed his brand of “flinty pragmatism.” His defining accomplishment was a health insurance mandate that became the precursor to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

His success as governor propelled him to run for president in 2007, but the pragmatist who worked with a Democratic legislature on health care appeared to melt away before the crowds of Republican primary voters. He began using his home state as a punch line, telling rally crowds, “Being a conservative Republican in Massachusetts is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention.” As his popularity in national primary polls ticked up, his approval in Massachusetts dropped. “A new persona emerged,” Coppins writes, and Romney “did not pause to consider whether this political reinvention was more or less authentic to who he really was.”

Although those compromises did not earn him the GOP nomination in 2008, they worked in his favor in 2012, perhaps in no small part because of his endorsement by Trump. Romney found him garish and absurd but was swayed by Trump’s growing influence among base voters. Moreover, Coppins writes, he liked Trump—the ostentatious billionaire was a “cartoon character,” not a political figure to be taken seriously. Romney’s rationalization was emblematic of what Coppins argued “would end up being remembered as one of the pettiest, most forgettable presidential elections in modern American history.”

At the time, Romney truly convinced himself “that Obama’s reelection would be catastrophic for the country” and that Romney was the only one who could prevent the nation’s impending downward spiral. So he accepted the support and advice of some of the more unappealing figures in the GOP—including Trump. “There was no use, he now realized, in trying to control people like Trump. This was Romney’s party; these were his bedfellows,” Coppins writes. “He had no choice but to sleep with them.” When Romney lost the 2012 election, Trump insisted to his followers on Twitter that the election had been stolen. “We should march on Washington and stop this travesty,” Trump tweeted.

After briefly mulling a comeback bid for president in 2016, Romney ultimately decided against running for a third time in a row. He was unimpressed with the Republican field, however, and dismissive of Trump’s campaign. Romney was shocked by Trump’s staying power as a candidate, given that he was a one-man scandal machine: Everything Romney believed about politics dictated that a candidate so committed to offensive comments should easily flame out, but the outrage machine only served to make Trump stronger with GOP voters.

Romney became increasingly concerned about Trump’s ascent, horrified by the “bullying, the lying, the unrepentant mistreatment of women,” Coppins writes; Romney considered Trump a “profoundly depraved and broken person whose election would coarsen America’s culture.” Romney even went so far as to deliver a speech rebuking Trump and attempted to convince the other GOP candidates to band together to take him down, an effort that was stymied by their individual presidential ambitions. Still, Coppins writes that Romney “hadn’t yet fully reckoned with his own coddling of Trump”: the fact that, just four years before, he had gratefully acknowledged Trump’s endorsement.

Despite his horror at Trump’s election, Romney was willing to consider working with him again. In late November 2016, Trump summoned him first to his private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and then for dinner in Trump Tower, essentially auditioning Romney for secretary of state in the new administration. Romney seriously contemplated taking the job on the logic that so-called adults in the room would be able to rein in Trump’s worst instincts in the White House; accepting the position would be the responsible course of action if Trump made the offer. But his motivations were not entirely selfless. “I like being involved and being in the middle of things, and having something important to do,” Romney told Coppins. “It’s like, you know, I wanted to be president. If you can’t be president, being secretary of state’s not a bad spot to come thereafter.”

His brief consideration of the position, allowing himself to be wooed by Trump, is emblematic of his determination to live up to the “Romney obligation,” a path laid at his feet by his father: a principled duty to serve, with a bullheaded penchant for tackling crisis situations. But as Coppins observes late in the book, Romney’s “defining trait” may be his “meld of moral obligation and personal hubris.” Despite the loathing he had developed for Trump, Romney had rationalized his eagerness to become secretary of state to himself. However, after he lost out on that position—and witnessed Trump’s first months in office—the pendulum swung again toward dislike and horror of the new president and his policies. (Perhaps not helped by the humiliating manner in which Trump withdrew from the courtship.)

As he ran for Senate in Utah in 2018, Romney was unnerved by the increasingly undemocratic tendencies of his party and its leader, and particularly the growing antipathy toward the press. After his election, Romney was somewhat lonely—he had an ambitious policy agenda but was frustrated by the inertia of the Senate. Lawmakers in the upper chamber too often seemed more interested in raising their own political profile than accomplishing good policy. Moreover, he was “increasingly impatient with the cravenness and cowardice that seemed to rule his caucus,” Coppins writes. As the only Republican to vote to convict Trump in his 2020 impeachment trial, Romney was “appalled by the behavior of his colleagues” and their refusal to act as impartial jurors.

Romney was a vocal critic of Trump’s actions on January 6, 2021, when a violent mob of his supporters laid siege to the Capitol in an effort to overturn the election results. He played a particularly harrowing role on that day—minutes before the rioters breached the second floor of the Capitol, he was prevented from leaving the Senate chamber by a police officer, narrowly avoiding a confrontation. When Congress reconvened after the Capitol was cleared, Romney delivered a reproach to his fellow Republicans who still wanted to overturn the election results in two states: “Do we weigh our own political fortunes more heavily than we weigh the strength of our republic, the strength of our democracy, and the cause of freedom?” Romney thundered in a speech that evening, a line Coppins chose to open his book. “What is the weight of personal acclaim compared to the weight of conscience?”

Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz “know better” than to actually believe the 2020 election was stolen, but they “seemed to be thinking about their own presidential prospects, figuring Republican primary voters would reward this type of behavior,” Coppins writes. Romney exhibited similar frustration with Republicans who supported a 2022 measure to allow military troops who chose not to obtain a Covid vaccine to remain in the service. GOP senators who were concerned about the measure in private nonetheless voted for it on the floor—in large part because vaccine skepticism was popular with Republican voters.

“Romney, of all people, knew the power of such rationalizations. But he also knew the pandering came with a cost,” Coppins writes. “The elected leaders of his party had forgotten how to say no to their base. They’d forgotten how to do unpopular things simply because they were right.”

Romney asserts that Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, an inveterate pragmatist, is primarily interested in appeasing Trump for the sake of electing more Republicans to the Senate. Romney recalls McConnell telling him that he was “lucky,” because “you can say the things that we all think” about Trump.

Romney is, perhaps, liberated by the fact that he will not be seeking reelection. For many retiring senators in their seventies or eighties, leaving Congress is a “death sentence,” Coppins writes; it’s partially why you see lawmakers remain in office despite physical or mental infirmity. For Romney, it will be a relief. He will be able to return to doting on his loving family, and his massive vacation compound. Romney has mulled starting a new party with conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin—working title: “Stop the Stupid,” Coppins writes—but even he acknowledges that plan is perhaps unrealistic.

When Romney returns to Utah as a private citizen—not a governor, not a presidential candidate, not a senator—he will carry the weight of his conscience. He will need to personally reckon with his own lengthy career and whether he lived up to the “Romney obligation” that has defined his life. But Romney’s departure will also mean one fewer Republican in Congress who is willing to challenge Trump, to criticize members of his own party for their illiberal tendencies, to publicly wrestle with what it means to be a member of the modern GOP. “What makes Romney unusual as a political figure is not his capacity for self-justification but the fact that he recognized it in himself and worked to guard against it,” Coppins argues. Even if his reckoning with himself is occasionally incomplete, he has been willing to engage in self-reflection.