I’ve never understood Mitt Romney. I’ve admired him, even warmed to him. The post-election documentary Mitt presents Mitt Romney as a man who is high in conscientiousness; he chases after the tiniest litter in his presence. It shows a winning self-effacing side of the man; it shows him admiring his father more than himself. In that film, he takes the slings and arrows of public life with some grace. He’s been on the right side of various controversies in his Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was, by everyone’s accounts, a sterling business partner who worked hard and intelligently building a business in a high-stakes field.
In my own reporting on him, I’ve seen how his high energy and his chase for excellence come out in his family life. I’ve seen how he taught his sons to make difficult choices in their high-pressure and high-status jobs to prioritize time traditionally set aside for Romney family get-togethers. Just a picture of his children, their spouses, and his grandkids is a visual argument for his greatness as a man. I’ve long thought that one of his mistakes was not being more open about his faith and more candid. He’s an example of the way Mormonism seemed to be a frontier mutation of American WASP culture, one that endowed its members with a certain competitive flintiness, political realism, and actual family values where before there was merely graceful entitlement and a certain gin-blossom softness. And I’ve even admired his ambition for higher office. Having proved himself as a son, a husband, a father, and in business, he sought to serve his country in a very special way, as his father did. And he seemed to conceive of doing so as a way of demonstrating not just his gratitude for his country, but proving the worth of the subculture of it that formed him.
But I’ve never understood him. Once the subject turns to politics, law, and morality, the things Romney says and his actions don’t quite match, or his reasoning doesn’t cohere. Unable to understand him, I’ve found him impossible to believe. And on two subjects in particular it has been impossible to reconcile his words and actions: abortion and Donald Trump. Exploring the first can help us illuminate his approach to the latter.
In 1994, seeking to defeat Ted Kennedy, Romney argued vigorously, but implausibly, that he was as much or more pro-choice than Ted Kennedy. He and his wife went to a Planned Parenthood fundraiser and donated $150 to the organization, though later he claimed not to recall this. Sometimes Romney would hint that he had “personal beliefs” about the issue that weren’t relevant to the public. He then ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002 as pro-choice and won, while vowing not to change the state’s abortion laws. He supported taxpayer-funded abortions for disadvantaged women, though he did end up signing some legislation supported by pro-lifers.
There have been multiple attempts to explain this. As he began to have presidential-sized ambitions in the Republican Party, Romney confessed that his initial position was a lie. He said, “The greatest mistake was when I first ran for office, being deeply opposed to abortion but saying, ‘I support the current law,’ which was pro-choice and effectively a pro-choice position. That was just wrong.”
A friendly election-year biography attributed his position to mere political expediency. It was the result of polling done by Richard Wirthlin showing that he couldn’t win statewide office with an effectively pro-life position.
But neither of these quite captures what Romney had argued or done. Romney actually took Wirthlin, a fellow Mormon with connections high in the Church’s hierarchy, to Salt Lake City to explain what his position would be and the necessity of having it to achieve his desired office to LDS leaders. He was looking for neither a blessing nor an endorsement. But, if we are to believe his latter claim about his “greatest mistake,” it seems as if this meeting was an attempt to receive tacit endorsement to lie to the public about his beliefs, or it was to lie to his most senior churchmen.
During the campaign, he said that his mother, Lenore Romney, had been for legal abortion, due to the death of a family member, Ann Keenan, during an illegal abortion in 1963. “My mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want,” he said, recalling that story, “but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that.” In fact, Lenore Romney’s position was muddled, a preference for more-liberal abortion rights, but she also publicly affirmed her exasperation with “the argument that a woman should have the final word.” Romney’s interpretation of his mother’s position was hotly disputed by veterans of her 1970 campaign for the U.S. Senate. And voters did see him “waver” on the issue, eventually.
And, while he claimed he would not impose his “personal beliefs” on others, as a bishop of his Church, he conscientiously counseled women against abortions that were impermissible by the standards of the LDS Church, which condemns abortion done for “personal convenience” as immoral, and offered counsel supporting the decision to abort in the case of an ectopic pregnancy.
Perhaps the “personal beliefs” distinction appealed because it served to rhetorically reconcile his political statements with his membership in his Church, but it represents its own kind of incoherence. Political beliefs about the rate of taxation, deficits, or public management of health care are just as much “personal beliefs” as convictions about the unborn. Romney is confessing that as governor he was willing to oversee the imposition of taxes, fines, and prison sentences for violations of relatively trivial personal beliefs translated into public, but questions of whom it might be legitimate to kill would be subject to this unsupportable distinction.
Romney would tell Katie Couric about his mistake when explaining his 2005 decision to reject a bill that would fund embryonic-stem-cell research: “It became apparent to me when a bill reached my desk that would have created new life and destroyed it, and I simply could not sign it. It was unacceptable to me to . . . be associated with the destruction of human life. And I recognized that.” It was a strange answer, to suggest that when the issue had been framed as a beloved family member’s death, it was merely an abstraction to him. But that when it involved a complex lab process, it became real. This is not very plausible. And it was made less so when he immediately revealed the continued incoherence of his views by saying that he would allow surplus embryos created by couples through in vitro fertilization to be donated to research and then destroyed if the couple chose.
Effectively, his position became that he had made a mistake and misrepresented his views to the public of Massachusetts, but having then realized he was wrong and that the destruction of human embryos could not be countenanced, he still privileged his campaign promise to not change the laws of the state over the personhood of the unborn.
On Bill O’Reilly, he tried to describe his thinking. “I thought, ‘Well, I can say and can understand the idea of leaving the law the way it is.’” Slate journalist Will Saletan wisely noted that Romney continued to avoid describing his convictions directly, referring instead to how he negotiated his conscience and public attitudes. “This isn’t a man talking about what he believes,” Saletan observed. “It’s a man talking about framing a public posture under constraint.” What Saletan observed is not so much Romney changing his views on abortion as changing his political identity on the issue.
What I would say is that Romney’s consistent application of Mormon teaching on abortion as a bishop acting in a pastoral role and his various political personas show a man who is convinced that he had to condescend to the voters whose support he was soliciting. He manages it with some half-truths and self-deception but mainly through a lack of candor and logic.
This habit of studying voters and trying to learn what they want to hear is why my friend and colleague Jonah Goldberg says that Mitt Romney speaks “conservatism as a second language.” Romney called himself a “severe conservative”: a two-word phrase that communicated whole essays about his desire to pander to conservatives, his inability to understand them, and his low view of their political enterprise — and how he conceived of the unfortunate moral and aesthetic price of his own ambitions in winning their support. In both pretending to be more pro-choice or pro-life than he was, he was lowering himself to his audience.
He is far from the only politician who has shifted his views on Donald Trump, and he may not be the most incoherent. Ted Cruz started his chase for the Republican presidency by proudly declaring that he thought Donald Trump was awesome. But by the end, Cruz perhaps confessed to his own lack of candor when he said with the first genuine emotion I’ve ever seen from him: “I’m going to do something I haven’t done for the entire campaign, for those of you all who’ve traveled with me, all across the country. I’m going to tell you what I really think of Donald Trump. . . . The man is utterly amoral. . . . Morality does not exist for him.” But then again, nobody I know is currently praising Ted Cruz for his moral consistency, courage, and conscience.
Romney also once claimed to tell us what he really thought of Donald Trump when he made an extraordinary intervention in the 2016 campaign. As the party’s most recent nominee for president, he gave a blistering speech against the man who was already becoming the presumptive nominee. “Think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities. The bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics,” he said.
He criticized Trump’s nastiness and his racism, his willingness to scapegoat Muslims and immigrants. He said Trump didn’t know anything about the economy and predicted that if Trump embarked on his trade war, it would plunge the American economy into deep recession. “Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the members of the American public for suckers. He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”
Romney did not have to wait for the 2016 election to form a low opinion of Donald Trump. In the middle of Romney’s own 2012 campaign, Donald Trump had become an unwelcome sideshow, fanning the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Romney dropped everything to fly to Vegas to collect Donald’s endorsement when it was offered. Romney praised Trump’s position on China and his understanding of the economy. Again, candidates always accept endorsements where they can help. But accepting it in the way he did was another form of condescension.
If Romney really believed that Donald Trump was a phony and a fraud, why did he seriously explore a role as secretary of state in Trump’s administration? Some of my friends have argued that interposing oneself between an unfit president and foreign policy violates no moral code. As a moral abstraction, that’s true. But the job of the secretary of state is not to interpose. That’s a job more properly for Congress. A Cabinet member’s job is to advise, appraise, and execute. Interposing is an extremely unconstitutional way of thinking about it. Romney had denounced Trump’s foreign policy in public and then watched the American people elect him. Had Romney learned anything from this event? Had he been humbled in any way? He showed no evidence of it.
While it may not have gone very far, Romney did some diligence on the idea of the job. He contacted all the living secretaries of state. He said he “spoke with Secretary Clinton, and in each case, each of them said: ‘Please, please take that job, if it’s offered to you. We would very much like to see you serve in that capacity.’”
Now, there’s something funny about consulting with Clinton. First, of course, is that she had just been rejected for the job of president. Her advice on who should be secretary of state is irrelevant. But second, in Romney’s big anti-Trump intervention, Romney let fly with harsh criticisms of Clinton’s tenure at State. He said “when she was guiding it … America’s interests were diminished at every corner of the world. She compromised our national secrets. She dissembled to the families of the slain. And she jettisoned her most profound beliefs to gain presidential power.”
These are extremely grave accusations. If she did all that, why seek her input? Or was this criticism another attempt at condescending to Republican prejudices while trying to appeal to them? Am I supposed to believe his brief against Clinton? I don’t know. Seriously considering the job at State and taking Clinton’s advice both seem to betray his public words.
But the inconsistency carries through again. Even though in 2016 he said he would have rejected Trump’s endorsement for president had Trump said what he did about Muslims then, Romney happily accepted Trump’s endorsement for Senate in 2018, and then, when he arrived in Washington, returned the favor with a Washington Post op-ed criticizing the president. All these gyrations can be explained in isolation, as attempts at conciliation and provocation come in their turns. But the movement taken as a whole is surprisingly snakelike.
And so I come to his speech explaining his vote to convict and remove President Trump. My own view is that what Trump did was wrong, but much less serious a violation of his duties than many things done under all the presidents of my lifetime. And so I think the proposed remedy of impeachment and removal is excessive, unless we intend to dramatically raise the standards of public conduct. Perhaps we ought to raise them in a way that would disallow vice presidents’ sons from sitting on the boards of state-linked corporations in a country where his father’s administration had just backed a change of government without an election. Perhaps a top adviser to the Romney campaign shouldn’t have been on that same board either, given the appearance of corruption it gives to Ukrainians.
Romney waited for his moment until after all his Senate colleagues had committed to their course of action. Romney framed his decision in the most elevated terms possible. “I swore an oath, before God, to exercise ‘impartial justice.’” He said, “I am a profoundly religious person. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential.” I’m happy for him to finally acknowledge his faith in this way. Though, I wish as governor of Massachusetts he had fought to allow Catholic adoption agencies to take their oaths before God as seriously as he does.
Romney talked about his duty as a senator-juror as he unfurled his surprise vote to convict and impeach. He and his office timed three exclusive media pieces in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and Fox News, in which he talked about his decision and his place in history.
But wouldn’t a serious senator-juror from a one-party safe state talk, argue, and remonstrate with the other jurors? Shouldn’t the most politically vulnerable members of his caucus and the ones most likely to change their assessment — Susan Collins and Cory Gardner — hear about his reasoning and decision before he tells the producers of Chris Wallace’s television show? Apparently not.
If Romney really believes that Trump is acting akin to a “tinhorn dictator,” as he claimed in his explanations, he would logically be obliged to overcome his policy differences with Trump’s rival Democratic candidate in 2020 and endorse him or her, or explain why Mayor Pete Buttigieg or Bernie Sanders is worse than a tinhorn dictator. I suspect he won’t. And when he doesn’t, he’ll once again have found a public persona and identity at the cost of candor and coherence.
At the risk of alienating any readers who have stuck with me, perhaps this is the downside of all the things I admire about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Romney takes grave and costly moral stands and reverses them with unsatisfying and incoherent explanations. His Church does the same — on polygamy and on the admissibility of black people to the universal priesthood of his Church. The Church digs in, firing thunderbolts at its critics. And then a political opportunity (statehood) or a political cost (boycotts led by the Reverend Jesse Jackson) comes into view. No coherent explanation is given for the change; no rational account of God’s provident change is offered. A revelation just comes from on high.
In one of his rollout interviews, Romney was asked if this vote signaled his ambitions for higher office. According to the report: Romney “erupted in laughter. ‘Yes! That’s it! They caught me!’ he proclaimed. ‘Look at the base I have! It’s going to be at least 2 or 3 percent of the Republican Party. As goes Utah, so goes the nation!’”
Well, there it is, the great revelation. From his 2012 campaign, we know of Americans, he holds 47 percent in contempt. Now we know that of Republicans, the percentage rises to 97 or 98. He doesn’t seek the esteem of the New York Times, which is fickle. And he understands that he will be subject to the sustained and sometimes hysterical criticism of his party. His moral and political beliefs shift constantly, and may yet shift again. And though they do not cohere, I credit his deep sincerity, a sincerity which is in its way uniquely religious.
Mere mortals think their actions define them. And if he were judged by his actions outside of politics, Romney would rank as one of America’s greatest men. But he always conceived of politics as a low business and so tried to make deals with himself and his audience about what he “could” say, rather than what he should. From more pro-choice than Ted Kennedy, to severely conservative, from Trump’s greatest scourge to his potential senior diplomat, and back again, from consuming ambition for high office to indifference to it, Romney’s actions never really meant anything or made a difference. The futility of his impeachment vote was the point, the rebuke of the other 97 percent of Republicans. But taken together, all of Romney’s political actions bear witness to the one sincere, consistent, and abiding truth: He has always esteemed himself as the real elect.