The current slate of Republican presidential hopefuls make you wonder if the party misses Romney. Not Mitt, though that wouldn’t be so bad. I mean George, his dad.
Donald Trump is innovating new ways to foment the resentments of the white working class, but it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to propel him to the Republican nomination. Among conservative intellectuals, especially the Buckleyites at National Review, he’s the second coming of John Birch Society founder Robert Welch. Trump can’t even win over Glenn Beck. Ted Cruz meanwhile hopes to drive out millions of evangelical voters he believes stayed home in 2012, but the GOP establishment is worried and his peers in the Senate detest him.
George Romney, on the other hand, was among the most esteemed members of the Republican Party during the last half of the 20th century. But that esteem was about more than personality. Along with former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Romney represented the last vestiges of liberal Republicanism, an all but extinct school of political thought that could once again help the GOP find its way.
Until the 1930s, the Republican Party could reliably depend on the support of African Americans, especially in swing states like Connecticut. The Grand Old Party, after all, was the party of the Great Emancipator.
The New Deal fractured that coalition. In search of a national majority, Republicans started looking to the South, where their message of limited government found appeal among those who believed federal enforcement of civil rights was a perversion of power.
In The Making of the President 1960, Theodore White summed up the Republican Party’s trade off this way: “Let us give the Northern Negro vote to the Democrats, and we shall take the Old South for ourselves.”
White believed Nixon then had the potential to reorient the GOP “toward an axis of Northern-Southern conservatives,” but failed, because liberal Republicans would not stand with him until the party adopted a civil-rights plank as advanced as the Democrats’. The result, White wrote, was “alienating Northern Negro and Southern white, losing both along with the election.”
He would not repeat that mistake. By 1968, Nixon perfected what is known as “The Southern Strategy.”
George Romney was the kind of Republican who believes true self-reliance comes when citizens are fully endowed with the promise of the Declaration of Independence.
This meant that states had rights enshrined in the Constitution, but they also, like citizens, had grave responsibilities. The Michigan governor would not endorse conservative Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, because of his appeals to Democratic segregationists. And when Romney was in Richard Nixon’s cabinet, he drove the president to distraction with his highly public efforts to integrate housing in all-white suburbs.
As president of the American Motors Company, briefly among Detroit’s most innovative car makers, Romney believed corporations had multiple stakeholders, as described by Rick Perlstein. If they are people, corporations also constitute a community of individuals who depend on each other. “Each owes a debt to the other,” a biographer quoted Romney as saying. Hoover’s rugged individualism, Romney thought, was “nothing but a political banner to cover up greed.”
As Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Nixon, he was implacable in the view that minorities deserve access to quality housing in affluent white suburbs, so much so he became a political liability. Nixon was not willing, as Romney was, to sacrifice the support of white voters in the name of egalitarianism. Until the president cut off all funding to desegregate suburbia, Romney’s HUD, according to sociologist Christopher Bonastia, “came surprisingly close to implementing unpopular anti-discrimination policies.”
With a record of civil-rights advocacy, President John F. Kennedy briefly worried Romney would be his Republican opponent in 1964. Four years later, he was more likely to take the White House, one pollster said, than any Republican since Eisenhower in 1952.
That hopeful prediction was too optimistic. With Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968, liberal Republicans were on a path toward extinction. Who was the last? Some say Nelson Rockefeller. Others say George Romney. Others still say Jack Kemp. But a pretty good case can be made for George Romney’s son Mitt, particularly during his first run for president in 2008, before the former Massachusetts governor rejected his record of using liberal methods to achieve Republican goals.
But Mitt Romney’s second campaign in 2012 was incongruent, as it were, with his father’s liberal Republicanism. Indeed, the nadir may have been in July of that year when he spoke at the annual gathering of the NAACP. Romney said: “If our goal is jobs, we have to stop spending over a trillion dollars more than we take in every year. So to do that, I’m going to eliminate every nonessential expensive program I can find. That includes Obamacare.”
The late civil-rights leader Julian Bond later said: “He wasn’t speaking to us. He was speaking to that slice of white America that hasn’t made up its mind about him, and he’s saying, ‘Look at me, I’m O.K. I can get along with the Negroes. I can say things to them that they don’t like, so I’m not afraid to stand up to them.'”
The divisive rhetoric never came naturally to Mitt Romney. The ideology of his youth wasn’t steeped in the coded language of the Southern Strategy, as it was for candidates like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who famously called Obama America’s greatest “food-stamp president.” The ideology of Romney’s youth was the opposite.
George Romney’s Republicanism didn’t see the world as a zero-sum contest between white and black, friend and enemy, us and them. It saw a community of individuals with rights as well as responsibilities, to each other and the community. These communities and individuals don’t work together because they must. They work together because they want to. As the elder Romney explained when announcing his presidential bid in 1967, “We must recognize that the root source of America’s strength is the divinely endowed freedom of its people; That personal responsibility and family responsibilities are essential in a free society; That it is through voluntary cooperation of responsible individuals that Americans have made life more agreeable and rewarding. ”
Such a vision—which emphasizes faith, families, and social responsibility while respecting individual freedom and enterprise—is sadly lacking among conservatives today. Mitt Romney decided against running a third time, which may be just as well. But the political tradition he comes from still has much to offer the Republican Party as it searches for a way forward.
John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.