Ever since the rise of Donald Trump, many folks involved in politics have theorized about how we got here — and done a little introspection about whether anyone could have stopped him.
But my assumption is that there are three people alive today who probably do more “what if” thinking about Trump’s rise than anyone else: Barack Obama (Trump’s immediate predecessor), Hillary Clinton (Trump’s general election foe in 2016) and Mitt Romney (the last GOP nominee before Trump).
Why those three above anyone else? They were all, in some ways, the last three guardians at the gate — or obstacles, depending on your point of view — before Trump and his forces stormed it.
I’m not in the camp that believes Trump was an inevitable result of the election of the first Black president, but Obama’s election did unleash some forces in the country that, perhaps, we all naively thought were dead. It turns out they were simply dormant.
But Obama has never publicly addressed many of the key questions he must have about Trump’s election. And for all we know, we may never get his true thoughts about whether there is anything he could have done to prevent Trump’s rise. Did he read the political landscape incorrectly in falling in line behind the conventional wisdom that Clinton was electable? Did he not make a political calculation — and simply got behind Clinton out of respect and belief she was the best person to do the job? Was any part of it born out of loyalty for both her and her husband’s eventually getting behind him in 2008, as well as for the help Bill Clinton gave him in 2012?
As for Hillary Clinton’s “what if” conversations with herself, we can speculate about whether she regrets not running for president in 2004, the year I will always believe was her best shot at the White House. Then there’s the campaign in 2016 and various tactical decisions, whether they were campaigning in Michigan and Wisconsin too little and too late, the wasted effort to contest Texas, her running mate pick — or the fact that her campaign lacked a clear vision of what she wanted to do as president, beyond succeeding Obama. Then there’s the question of whether the real issue with her candidacy was not her gender but her last name and the baggage of her husband’s moral failings. Again, it’s not clear we will ever know for sure what she was thinking at various points of her quest for the presidency.
While we can speculate and guess what Obama and Clinton have thought over the years about their own actions and decisions along the road to the Trump presidency, we don’t have to guess with Romney.
It turns out that Romney kept a journal of many of his innermost thoughts. And more important, he turned it all over to journalist McKay Coppins of The Atlantic, who has turned those thoughts and more into the new book “Romney: A Reckoning.”
It’s a perfectly titled book, because a self-reckoning is exactly what Coppins has culled from the voluminous emails, memos and journal entries Romney turned over to him — many of which he hadn’t reread for years.
For someone like me, who started to cover campaign politics professionally in 1992, it means I now have an idea of exactly what Romney was thinking throughout his entire political career, starting with his first run for office in 1994, when he unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts.
It’s rare to get this kind of honest portrayal of a significant political figure while said figure is still alive. It’s a tribute to Romney that he chose to let a journalist do the work instead of edit or revise his memory for his own memoir.
Obviously, the heart of the book is his chronicling of the end of the modern Republican Party. And it’s clear Romney is trying to figure out how that happened. What did he miss over the years? Could he or anyone else have done something different to keep voters from falling for a person he saw as a con artist who had no interest in or respect for the U.S. Constitution or for democracy?
In short, it’s a book that should serve as a warning to anyone who believes in “ends justifies the means” politicking. Because at its core, that’s what this book showcases: how the “ends justifies the means” mindset broke the GOP to the point it’s now in bed with Trump.
The book does a great job of re-chronicling key points in Romney’s political life using his thoughts at the time, coupled with his remembrances in subsequent interviews with the author.
There are small examples Romney now realizes were signs that the GOP base was being weaponized by the “us-vs.-them” mentality. In one anecdote from the 2008 campaign, Romney recounts his thoughts about the GOP’s once-frequent talking point about doing away with the country’s inheritance tax laws, known in conservative circles as “the death tax.”
Romney admitted: “It was one of those things you say because you don’t know what you’re talking about when you’re first running for president.” What really struck Romney as odd was why the crowd would cheer so hard for the denunciation of the so-called death tax, because it was unlikely any single person in the crowd would be affected by it. He now realizes the answer: It “was a grim kind of team loyalty — this is what my side is for, so this is what I support. It all felt so absurd in that moment, so bleak. He chose not to dwell on the thought too long.”
This was perhaps a small example of how the professional class thought of the GOP base: as useful supporters of what the rich elite wanted for their own selfish reasons. Talking points were created to preach to partisan audiences, even though the policy had no impact on their lives.
Romney’s 2012 campaign, in hindsight, was a clear example of his doing or saying whatever it took to get the nomination and the presidency — an “ends justifies the means” campaign. The decision to court Trump and seek his endorsement is clearly something Romney now regrets.
Ironically, he knew then it was a bad idea, but he didn’t fully know why. He saw Trump as silly and a distraction, and he even admitted, at times, to finding him entertaining. But Romney didn’t fully believe his embrace was somehow mainstreaming him for the future. Romney assumed, like many of us, that Trump was a celebrity the party had to mollify because he was gaining so much popularity online. In the moment, it was simply something he thought he had to do to win the election.
What’s striking, in this section of the book, is the introspection Romney was undertaking about that campaign in real time. By the fall of the campaign, he clearly didn’t like the campaign he was running. He lamented the lack of a message beyond replacing Obama, and he was frustrated that he did what he vowed he’d never do: let some out-of-context comment haunt his campaign (like a comment about “brainwashing” during the Vietnam War did to his father’s White House bid in 1968).
The fallout over Romney’s comments calling 47% of the country “takers,” from a leaked recording of a high-dollar fundraiser, sent him spiraling to the point that he asked his own campaign manager whether he should drop out of the race. He apparently was quite serious.
To think that in back-to-back presidential campaigns, leaked audio in the fall of the general election became a huge important event. Romney was so distraught over it he thought he should drop out. Of course, Trump was only more defiant following the “Access Hollywood” tape leak. If you needed a stark example of the difference between the characters of these two men, their own reactions to the leaked audio are a good one.
There may be no better avatar for the “ends justifies the means” mentality than Romney’s interactions and takes on Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Romney is clearly torn on McConnell. The more he has watched McConnell manage the Senate’s egos, the more impressed he is. In Romney’s telling, McConnell tries to protect his incumbents, even if he doesn’t agree with them or even like them. His only rule seems to be “don’t make it personal with another senator in public.” That quality probably explains McConnell’s staying power inside the conference. As top-down as the public thinks he is, McConnell is clearly pretty good at making every one of his senators feel “heard” and feel consequential.
But McConnell is the ultimate political survivor, and in some ways, this book serves as a reminder of just how much surviving is McConnell’s North Star.
During the first Trump impeachment, Romney was always intent on taking his role as a juror very seriously. Given his background in management consulting and in corporate fix-ups, doing a thorough investigation of what happened was second nature to him. It struck him as odd that no one in the Senate GOP seemed to want to know the truth of what happened with Trump and the Ukraine aid and the role Rudy Giuliani had been playing in trying to muddy up the Bidens.
But McConnell explained his thinking to Romney when he was trying to persuade him not to vote with Democrats to allow for witnesses and a more thorough investigation during the impeachment trial. McConnell “explained that several vulnerable members of their caucus were up for reelection, and that a prolonged, polarizing Senate trial would force them to take tough votes that risked alienating their constituents,” according to the book. McConnell, in Romney’s telling, “didn’t bother defending Trump’s actions. Instead, he argued that protecting the GOP’s Senate majority was a matter of vital national importance.”
Even more confounding about the McConnell-led pressure campaign is that later on, after the House impeachment managers finished their presentation on Trump, McConnell would tell Romney that Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California and company “nailed him.” Romney was surprised to hear that from McConnell, who rarely seems to reveal what he’s really thinking to anyone. So, to probe McConnell further, Romney parried, “Well, the defense will say that Trump was just investigating corruption by the Bidens.” Replied McConnell, “If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge I can sell you.”
(McConnell told Coppins that he doesn’t remember the conversation and that he doesn’t recall thinking that way at the time.)
We already know that McConnell is on the record believing Trump was worthy of conviction in his second impeachment and that the only reason he voted to acquit was that Trump was no longer in office.
But now we know McConnell made that decision even after having believed that the Democrats proved their case against Trump during the first impeachment.
That’s a recurring theme in the book, starting somewhere around the spring of 2016, when Romney was trying to find any willing Republicans to get on board the “stop Trump at any price” campaign. Every time he tried to muster a collective will among disgusted Republicans, they’d flinch for fear of retribution. In McConnell’s case, he has made it quite clear that he’d rather keep the party united with Trump and his acolytes in it than try to clean up the party and get rid of that element.
The question now is whether it’s still possible to revive the pre-Trump Republican Party. As Romney chronicles, it’s not like that version of the GOP was all that popular, which may explain Romney’s loss in 2012. But what’s clear in this book is what Romney thought the Republican Party should represent: fiscal conservatism, free trade, lighter government regulation (on both economic and social issues), lower taxes and a robust national defense.
He has never been animated by the culture wars, which clearly reflects his upbringing. Romney is the avatar of the “business-centric” Republican who saw the party’s role as managing and guiding the country more than trying reprogram it. Trump has turned the party in the opposite direction of what Romney was advocating: He has never cared about fiscal issues (“don’t touch entitlements” is his mantra), he’s no free-trader, and he certainly doesn’t believe the U.S. should play the role of leader of the free world.
Watching the mess that is the Republican-controlled House right now, it’s clear this is a party that doesn’t know its own identity beyond Trump.
Romney has a theory that is clearly out of step with where Trump and others in the cultural conservative camp have led the party. He’s clearly concerned that Trump’s lack of interest in or reverence for democracy is having a trickle-down effect on the base of the party — and that his cult-of-personality-driven campaigns are spiraling the party closer to either irrelevance (if it continues to lose) or worse, authoritarianism (if Trump gets power again).
Right now, it’s hard to see how Romney fits in Trump’s Republican Party. This book may be seen as the obituary or epilogue for the pre-Trump GOP. The question is whether the various folks whom Romney frequently cites in his journals as secretly loathing Trump ever come around publicly. Right now, fear of primary voters is the single biggest driving force dictating why elected Republicans do what they do when it comes to Trump. If Trump loses again, does the calculus change, or is it simply too late?
This book, and Romney’s decision to let it all be public, is his attempt to sound the alarm one last time before it’s too late to save the GOP from itself.