Mitt Romney's last reinvention

W. James Antle III

The moments before Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) delivered his speech announcing how he would vote in the Senate trial of President Trump felt like the run-up to Sen. John McCain's vote on ObamaCare repeal. Like the late Arizona Republican, you knew Romney would be reviled by some as history's greatest monster and celebrated by others as a national hero — and that the identities of these groups would flip in an instant depending on how the senator voted.

Romney voted to convict Trump of abuse of power, becoming the only Republican to do so (he voted with the rest of his party to clear the president of obstruction of Congress). The Senate ultimately voted to keep Trump in power — a two-thirds majority was required to convict, instead the Republican majority voted to acquit — but Romney gave Democrats something the GOP could never get during Bill Clinton's Senate trial: a vote to remove from the president's party. With the remaining red state Democrats all voting to convict, that created a symbolic bipartisan vote against Trump. Two Democrats had voted against the articles of impeachment in the House.

Right on cue following Romney's vote, two dueling Twitter hashtags appeared: #MittRomneyIsMyHero versus #RecallRomney. Romney finally fulfilled his Never Trump promise despite voting with the president more often than Trump ally Rand Paul. Among pro-Trump conservatives, it brought back bad memories of Romney flailing on the 2012 campaign trail. Liberals gained what The American Spectator's Tom Bethell has long called "strange new respect" while Never Trumpers said it was a reminder of the sterling personal character that was always there.

The real story is more complicated. Romney is a decent man, especially by the standards of the rough-and-tumble world of politics. Even so, he has been a case study in political opportunism. He has totally reinvented himself several times depending on which electorate he was trying to appeal to in a given campaign.

We suspect many politicians are capable of doing this. Romney proved it. He ran for the Senate in Massachusetts in 1994, promising to be more pro-choice than Ted Kennedy and claiming to have been an independent when Ronald Reagan was president. Then he considered running for office in Utah, writing a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune in 2001 saying, "I do not wish to be labeled pro-choice." But Romney instead wound up returning to Massachusetts to run for governor. "Let me make this very clear: I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose," he said by way of reassuring Bay State social liberals. "I do not take the position of a pro-life candidate."

Romney was elected governor, but decided to run for the Republican presidential nomination rather than seek a second term. "I am pro-life," he then wrote in a 2005 Boston Globe op-ed. "I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother."

Abortion is a small example of how Romney positioned himself as a moderate when that was the best way to get elected to the Senate from Massachusetts, tiptoed a few inches to the right to become viable in Utah, sauntered backwards again to win an election in Massachusetts, then became "severely conservative" to appeal to the national Republican primary electorate. In his first presidential run, he maneuvered himself to the right of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Now he represents one of the most Republican states in the country.

Utah has probably allowed Romney to be his truest self politically. Mormon voters are conservative but haven't warmed to Trump to the same degree as evangelicals. But even in his Never Trump incarnation, there are questions. He had helped elevate Trump in the first place. In 2016, Romney was best positioned to deny Trump the presidency by running as an independent against him, as I wrote here at the time. He left that task to Evan McMullin instead. Once Trump was elected, Romney auditioned for secretary of state. Even his impeachment stand wasn't taken until all other Republicans were on the record for acquittal.

It may be unfair given all his successes, but Romney is seen by critics as having an insatiable need for approval. The desire for Republicans who want to win rather than lose honorably is what parts of the Republican base loves about Trump. At the same time, if Trump was a little bit closer to Romney in temperament and humility, he would probably be able to do better than a 49 percent job approval rating amid low unemployment and solid economic growth.

Mitt Romney is neither hero nor villain. He's a man trying to balance decency and ambition in a field where they too often conflict.

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