And since Joe Biden’s age (and the ages of Sens. Mitch McConnell and Dianne Feinstein, as well as Donald Trump) has been a major topic of conversation of late, it was refreshing to see a politician of a certain age (in Romney’s case, 76) voluntarily relinquish power before he starts missing a step.
On the other hand, Romney’s exodus is a net negative for those of us who believe in liberal democracy. It’s yet another name on the long list of decent conservatives who have been put out to pasture during the Trump era.
Leaders like Romney are repeatedly quitting and writing (or being the source for) a “goodbye cruel world” book on the way out the door, instead of standing their ground and fighting.
True, many of the erstwhile Republicans who ran afoul of Donald Trump—I’m thinking Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, et al.—were effectively pushed out. But on Wednesday, Romney said he’s confident he would win re-election in Utah in 2024—an assertion that seems consistent with recent polling. Instead of bailing, why not stick around and fight the good fight, like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp?
What is more, there is some major cognitive dissonance in Romney’s rhetoric. For example, he says “…it’s time for a new generation of leaders. They’re the ones that need to make the decisions that will shape the world they will be living in.” But as Michelle Goldberg notes in The New York Times, “The problem with this argument is that Romney despises the next generation of Republican leaders.”
Does Romney really want them making “the decisions that will shape the world”? Does he even care what happens after he’s gone?
The rising stars in today’s GOP are people like Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, whom Romney says, “put politics above the interests of liberal democracy and the Constitution.” And of Ohio’s junior senator, he said, “I don’t know that I can disrespect someone more than J. D. Vance.” And he does not seem to believe that these three individuals are anomalies. “A very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution,” he told author McKay Coppins.
It’s tough to weigh the two conflicting outcomes: 1) if Romney stays, he just gets old, or 2) Romney’s replacement likely won’t show the kind of courage Romney displayed when twice voting to convict Trump at his impeachment trials (see Romney’s Utah Senate colleague, Mike Lee).
Wouldn’t Romney’s best option be to risk growing old in the Senate?
Romney believes that serious challenges, like “mounting national debt, climate change and the ambitious authoritarians of Russia and China,” are not being adequately addressed by Biden or Trump. And while (all things being equal) these issues could be tackled more vigorously by someone under the age of 80, does Romney really believe that his values and philosophy, as they pertain to these important issues, will be advanced if a more Trump Republican replaces him in the Senate?
So why is he really leaving? My guess is that Romney doesn’t need this heartache. He’s rich. He wants to spend his twilight years with his beautiful family. He simply wants to retire, and that’s his right. But if he’s not going to stay and fight, at the very minimum, he should have focused on succession planning.
If Romney cares about leaving a lasting legacy, he would have prioritized identifying, training, promoting, and otherwise grooming a group of young, like-minded conservatives in Utah who share his values and philosophy. In other words, he should have built a machine. This necessarily requires being involved in the state and local Republican parties, which control money, ballot access, registration of voters, etc. His political aides could have managed it and made this project a priority from day one.
But according to Chuck Warren, a GOP consultant who has worked for several Utah Republican campaigns (including the late Sen. Orrin Hatch’s last one), “I just don’t think it’s something [Romney’s] engaged in, and he didn’t have anybody in his political circle who said, ‘Go do this.’ I just think he felt like, ‘it’s not worth my time.’”
In fairness, Romney may not be temperamentally suited to the kind of schmoozing required to build a movement. According to Coppins’ reporting, Romney “didn’t have many real friends in Washington, [and] ate dinner alone there most nights…” Regardless, for anyone who wants their values and ideas to outlive them, this effort is most certainly worth their time. If only the non-Trumpy Republicans saw that.
And it’s not just Romney. Look no further than Arizona, where two-term Republican governor Doug Ducey failed to effectively pass the torchto a sane successor. The infrastructure built by Sen. John McCain was not tended to, and today the Arizona GOP is in shambles.
Make no mistake: The MAGA forces are starting up think tanks and hosting conferences. They are identifying fellow travelers and placing them in high-profile campaigns. But when it comes to creating this sort of movement or infrastructure, Yeats’ line about “The best lacking all conviction, while the worst being full of passionate intensity” rings true.
Mitt Romney is a good and decent man, but there is little reason to believe that he will ensure the torch is passed to someone more like him and someone less like Mike Lee. That might happen, but it won’t be the result of prior planning.
Without a successor, there is no success. So if any other Never Trumpers still in office are listening, feel free to retire. But first, do the legwork and plan for your successor.