The mythical martyrdom of Mitt Romney
Republicans should whine less and actually emulate him
The conservative movement embraced Donald Trump for two, I think, fairly banal reasons.
One is that he won the 2016 presidential primary against a divided field and thus became the GOP presidential nominee, at which point the choice was not “is Trump good?” but “would I rather Republicans win the election or Democrats?” For most conservatives, the answer was “Republicans.”
The second is that, contrary to most people’s expectations, he won the election. And most Republicans felt they had perhaps underestimated the guy, and maybe by working with him they could achieve important policy goals, like kicking tons of people off of Medicaid, reducing the corporate income tax, and banning abortion. And they got two out of the three!
The downside is that by accepting and normalizing Trump, Republicans have destabilized America’s political institutions and jeopardized our constitutional order.
I think this just goes to show that conservatives are genuinely very committed to low taxes on the rich and to banning abortion. But a common talking point on the right holds that, no, it’s not at all that conservative elites willingly made this choice because it reflects their sincere belief that lowering taxes is the absolute most important issue. Rather, this all happened because Democrats and “the media” (a term that does not include the #1 cable network in America or the most popular talk shows or the Wall Street Journal) were mean to Mitt Romney.
This has become a kind of hardened dogma on the right, but it was Bethany Mandel who kicked off the latest round of discourse, so I’ll use her tweets as an example.
I think this is factually and analytically wrong, and frankly, it just doesn’t make sense. Why is Mitt Romney so much more Trump-skeptical than the average Republican Party senator if the whole thing is a reaction to the shabby treatment of Mitt Romney?
But more importantly, I think it reflects a bipartisan tendency to ignore the truth about Trump’s 2016 campaign, which is that while it was extremely weird in many ways, Trump courted (and won) votes by adopting more moderate positions on key issues, especially Social Security and Medicare. Romney could have moderated in this same way and likely won, but he chose not to. He faced almost no intra-party criticism for this choice, and it took an outsider like Trump to back Republicans down from vowing to cut the most popular programs in the country.
Romney’s 2012 platform was wild
Mitt Romney is a very skilled politician. He got elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002 by assiduously courting the state’s electorate — he reassured people that he was pro-choice and had no intention of unleashing a torrent of new gun legislation. But he promised to restrain the state legislature’s tax-and-spend inclinations and to be a check on public sector unions’ worst impulses. Democrats had some strong candidates in the field, but the nomination process ultimately spat out someone unimpressive, and that fall I became one of a large number of Gore/Kerry voters who backed Romney. My recollection is that I was specifically impressed by Romney’s support for an English immersion initiative for immigrant children in public schools.
It’s really hard to both be moderate enough to win a governor’s election in New England and also conservative enough to win a GOP presidential nomination.
But during the 2008 primary, Romney took advantage of the sudden emergence of same-sex marriage as an issue to champion a cultural conservative cause (and of the fact that John McCain’s record was also fairly heterodox) and tried to position himself to McCain’s right. That didn’t quite work, but it set him up to run again in 2012 when he successfully won the nomination.
Given his record as a pro-choice governor who signed into law a state-level version of the Affordable Care Act, he naturally faced a lot of skepticism from the right after his anti-abortion pivot. To reassure those in doubt, he branded himself as “severely conservative” and ran on raising the retirement age for Social Security, privatizing Medicare, and a $1 trillion cut in Medicaid funding. He proposed eliminating federal funding for traditional public schools and putting it all into a voucher program.
Romney also proposed a revenue-neutral tax reform plan that required large tax increases on the middle class and abandoned the moderate Bush/McCain stance on immigration in favor of “self-deportation.”
I think it is actually a testament to Romney’s considerable appeal as a personality that he did as well as he did, despite repositioning the GOP to the right on basically every issue simultaneously. It is obviously true that Obama and his allies took some tough swings at Romney, and I’m sure it’s true that some of these swings were unfair. But that’s politics. Obama was accused of being secretly Kenyan, and John Kerry’s wartime record was slandered. The most egregious media treatment of a candidate that I can recall was Al Gore, who would repeatedly say things that were totally accurate and then be accused of lying based on attributing to him claims that he never made.
What was unusual about Romney was that he went so hard-right, with so much specificity, on so many topics.
Donald Trump moderated the GOP
Given the political context, I can understand why Romney did that.
Pulling off the difficult task of winning the GOP presidential nomination after being elected as a moderate Republican governor of Massachusetts necessarily involved a certain amount of oversteering. But Romney is a good politician, and he came pretty close to beating Obama before remaking himself again as a somewhat-moderate, Trump-skeptical Utah politician.
Trump is a much less accomplished person and a much less deft politician, but he did something big and crude that made a huge difference: he moved to the center on Social Security and Medicare, and as a candidate, he also claimed he would protect Medicaid. Abandoning your party’s least-popular policy commitments helps you win votes. On taxes, he dropped Romney’s revenue-neutral reform idea in favor of a deficit-increasing, across-the-board tax cut. So while Romney lost a lot of votes from culturally conservative people who feared he would immiserate them, Trump reassured such people that he would uphold the status quo while agreeing with them on stuff like immigration and policing. That’s a good strategy. And, it’s worth recalling, it was contentious.
Even after the election, Paul Ryan tried to convince Trump to cut Medicare. Ryan failed, but he did talk Trump into proposing steep cuts to Medicaid. And while Trump never proposed cuts to Social Security retirement benefits, he did repeatedly go after Social Security Disability Insurance.
And it’s important to understand that this core tension has never gone away. Ron Johnson wants to cut Social Security. Blake Masters wants to privatize Social Security. Mehmet Oz wants to privatize Medicare. I would not say that Trump has been a particularly faithful custodian of his own legacy as a relative moderate on economic issues. But he did sign the CARES Act into law, betraying free market economic principles to prevent the Covid-19 pandemic from totally torching the American economy. It’s a level of flexibility that relatively few politicians have, and it has worked pretty well for him personally despite his many flaws.
The boring lesson of Trump
I dwell on this because fundamentally, I think most conservative intellectuals hated Trump the day before Election Day 2016 because they thought he was going to lose, and then came to have a much higher opinion of him once he actually won.
That raises the question — did he win because he “hit back”?
The dominant interpretation on the right seems to be that in some sense, yes, all the things that would lead a normal person to say “Donald Trump is a worse person than Mitt Romney” are in fact virtues, and everyone should be more vulgar, more down-and-dirty.
My interpretation, which I think is correct, is that Romney would have gotten a lot more votes if he hadn’t embraced raising taxes on the middle class, cutting Social Security and Medicaid, and privatizing Medicare. Democrats probably would have tried to paint him as an enemy of these popular programs, just as Republicans call all Democrats socialists no matter their actual policy positions. But the reason the Democrat’s attacks on Romney were so persuasive is that they were true. He ran as a totally uncompromising down-the-line rightist, and people didn’t like it. If you combined Romney’s best traits (stand-up family man, skilled manager, seems decent and earnest) with Trump’s best trait (squishy on welfare state rollback), that politician would be more popular than either of them was in the real world.
Interestingly, one person who understands this is Mitt Romney, who post-2012 has not taken the same fascist turn as so many other conservatives but who has instead tried to work on things like a constructive conservative approach to family policy. People who liked Romney better than Trump and are sad Trump is the one who became president but still prefer Trump to a Democrat should try to pay attention to Mitt Romney — he’s trying to show you a better path.