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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Murphy: Romney exits with a warning

By Patricia Murphy
Published: September 19, 2023, 6:01am

I first covered U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney in 2012, when he was “former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney,” then running for president. At the time, he was so gee-whiz and perfectly presented that he was hard to take seriously. It was almost like Barbie’s Ken was running for president, if Ken had political consultants and a mansion with a car elevator in California. Regrettably, I often referred to him on social media as “Mittens.”

The Mitt Romney of 2012 didn’t connect with many voters, it turned out, and President Barack Obama was reelected to a largely successful second term. But the Obama years also gave rise to the Donald Trump years, which eventually led Romney to run for the U.S. Senate. As Trump’s opposite in nearly every way, he wanted to provide a counterpoint to the president he saw as not just dishonest but dangerous.

Once elected to the Senate, a different Romney, maybe the real Romney, emerged. He was still earnest, but also frank, self-deprecating and, in his forthcoming biography, “Romney: A Reckoning,” brutally forthright about what he has seen in Washington since then.

That same gee-wiz quality was transformed into a sort of conscience for Senate Republicans, whether they wanted it or not. That frequently left him on the outside looking in but always speaking up.

An extraordinary excerpt from Romney’s biography released the same day as his announcement makes it clear that he is leaving the Senate for the same reason he came — because he fears American democracy is dangerously close to being broken forever.

What he didn’t realize when he ran for the Senate, but he said he does know now, is that too many of his fellow Republicans like the brokenness. In fact, they depend on it. It’s a warning to the rest of us about the deepest rot in Washington and the dangers ahead if new leaders don’t step in and change course.

The book reveals a cliquish, high school culture inside the GOP Senate caucus, which is actually endemic to both parties and nothing new on Capitol Hill. But Romney also talks about his own disillusionment as he watched his fellow Republican senators disparage and even laugh at then-President Donald Trump privately, only to go along with him in public to protect their own hides. He should first consider what is best for his reelection, a fellow senator counseled him, followed by what’s best for the party and then for his state.

Romney said his breaking point came on Jan. 6. He believed the insurrection had been caused not just by Trump’s combustible rhetoric, but also by far-right Republican senators who had fanned the flames among GOP voters for months. When he saw U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley huddling for safety as the Capitol was being stormed, the book recounts him yelling at Hawley, “You’re the reason this is happening!”

As the weeks passed, Romney began to watch Republicans going along with Trump not just to save their jobs, but also out of fear for their families’ safety as violent threats became routine. “A very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution,” he told writer McKay Coppins.

A quick snapshot of Capitol Hill this week will tell you that the Trump-driven chaos that Romney describes in his book is not just flourishing, it’s ruling the day.

On the House side, for example, GOP leaders have no plan to pass the 11 appropriations bills they need to approve to avoid a government shutdown in two weeks. But they did announce an impeachment inquiry against President Joe Biden that Trump and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene had demanded.

Chaos, confusion and self-serving delusion — Romney described it all and it’s only gotten worse.

The message of Romney’s biography and his decision to leave is that democracy is under serious threat — but there was little that he, a senator and former presidential nominee, could do to save it.

It’s both a warning and a challenge for someone new to step up to the plate — and a reminder that life under President “Mittens” should not have been so easily dismissed.