John Roberts of Fox News inspired a ruckus a while back referring to Hillary Rodham Clinton as the “shadow president.” He didn’t have it quite right: She’ll never be president, and she has been reduced to a shadow.
Mitt Romney on the other hand . . .
The United States does not really have “shadow ministers” as they are found in the United Kingdom and other parliamentary countries. The concept is straightforward enough: If there is a Conservative government, then each of the Tory ministers is matched with a Labour antagonist who would hypothetically fill his role if there were a Labour government. The shadow cabinet is there to remind voters of what the alternative to the government in power is. That can be an effective political tool or a hindrance: Consider how often “Generic Republican” outperforms any actual Republican in our opinion polls.
The closest thing we have to that is the competition between majority and minority leaders in Congress: If you don’t like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, consider that the probable alternative is Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. In any case, the idea of a “shadow” minister — or a shadow president — is that he comes from the opposition party.
So what in the . . . heck . . . is Mitt Romney doing lining up for a Senate seat?
For a certain kind of Republican — an increasingly rare kind — Mitt Romney is the one who got away, a representative of what the Republican party might have become, post-Obama, if it had not become . . . whatever it is the grotesque and stunted political corporation still pretending to be the Party of Lincoln has become.
Unfortunately for Romney, 2012 was not the year to be running for president as relatively moderate Republican gazillionaire deal-maker with northeastern roots and a squishy record on abortion and the Second Amendment. As it turns out, the GOP is perfectly at ease with relatively moderate Republican gazillionaire deal-makers with northeastern roots and squishy records on abortion and the Second Amendment: They nominated one in 2016, and then elected him president.
Romney’s problem was not his agenda or his policies. Romney’s problem was Romney. With much of the country still reeling from the effects of the 2008–09 financial crisis, moderates and disaffected Democrats were not very likely to rally behind a private-equity man who made his fortune working at a firm that shares its name with a muscle-thug from the Batman movies, a millionaire corporate executive who went on to be a governor and presidential candidate after rising from his modest origins as the son of a millionaire corporate executive who went on to be a governor and presidential candidate. And there weren’t all that many disaffected Democrats to poach, anyway: They seemed to like Barack Obama just fine, for the most part, in spite of his having left their party electorally decimated in Congress and in the states.
Romney’s Romney problem was even more of a problem for Republicans. Romney’s animal spirits were rarely visible except for the lustful twinkle that came into his eye when he pronounced the word “data.” The Right was looking for a political nullification of the Obama years and a cultural repudiation of Barack Obama as a man. Romney — cool, calm, cerebral, restrained, polite Mitt Romney — has much more in common socially and stylistically with Barack Obama than he does with, say, Steve Bannon or Sean Hannity. He may have been the champion Republicans needed, but he was not the champion Republicans wanted.
Romney may have been the champion Republicans needed, but he was not the champion Republicans wanted.
In much the same way that the rhetoric of the “war on drugs” led police departments to behave as though they were literally at war with the communities they serve, the rhetoric of culture war has led many on the Right to believe that the United States — more free and more prosperous than it ever has been, despite the many failings of Washington — is on the verge of some kind of civil war, if not in the midst of one. The old, reassuring Cold War order of nuclear-armed Communist terror has been replaced by the ridiculous specter of “cultural Marxism” — a meaningless term — while ordinary patriotism has been displaced by mutant pop nationalism and the traditional sobriety of conservatism superseded by histrionic end-times rhetoric.
Q: In such times, why would Republicans turn to Mitt Romney?
If Republicans were who they were ten years ago, a Romney renaissance might make perfect sense. But Republicans have changed. One of the depressing things about my editor at National Review, Rich Lowry, is that he is so dependably correct in his estimation of the political facts on the ground, and it is difficult to argue with his recent assertion that Donald Trump now represents the main stream of the Republican political orientation. Trump’s substitution of sneering for analysis, his shallow anti-“elitism,” his attacks on free trade and on freedom of the press, his adolescent social-media habit: Republicans have not rallied behind him in spite of these things, but because of them.
Mitt Romney is a deeply religious man, and he is no doubt familiar with the story of the Israelites who fell down and worshipped the golden calf in spite of Moses’s best efforts. Republicans, being not so grand, have been seduced by Donald Trump’s gold-plated toilet — as sure a sign of the times as we have ever seen.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.