Beware Mitt Romney Bearing Gifts
Romney's child allowance proposal may be good policy, but there's good reason to be suspicious of its source.
Mitt Romney is a spring chicken. At a sprightly 73, the GOP’s 2012 nominee is: one year younger than the outgoing president and 2024 frontrunner, five years younger than both the incumbent president and the Senate minority leader, and seven years younger than the Speaker of the House. In the uppermost echelons of American government, only the Senate majority leader—boy wonder Chuck Schumer—is any younger, and only by three years.
This fact has been gnawing at me as the septuagenarian Utah senator/Massachusetts governor from Michigan snatches headlines left and right. Maybe I’m wrong; I hope I am. But in the age (no pun intended) of President Joe Biden, it’s hard not to think that Romney might still have an eye toward the Oval Office.
Mitt didn’t move to Utah for nothing. At the time, it seemed like he might have been gearing up for a 2020 primary contest, wriggling back into national news with a 2018 Senate campaign. By the beginning of campaign season, that route was obviously impossible. (Bill Weld, his predecessor as Massachusetts governor, tried—and got a single delegate from Iowa.) Now, as the first murmurs of 2024 prospects begin to surface, every other story in the New York Times contains Mitt Romney’s name. It may seem odd that Mitt Romney—of “binders full of women” and “47 percent” infamy—has become a media darling, but the only Republican to vote for conviction in Trump’s first impeachment has done a fine job courting corporate outlets.
The senator’s best recent clip came in the midst of the Capitol riot, when he shouted at Ted Cruz and company, “This is what you’ve gotten,” as the mob entered the building. It was a dramatic moment—even I think the anecdote is kind of cool—and received reverent coverage in every mainstream outlet. No doubt the establishment would be more than happy to see him take the GOP’s reins back over any more Trumpian successor. But there’s a general rule to follow here: The candidate they want is, without exception, absolutely not the candidate that we want.
Of course, even before the media had decided to warm up to him, Mitt was much closer to their politics than those of the average Republican voter. It’s worth noting that Romney staked his 2002 campaign for governor—his first successful election—on a promise to banish Democrat William Bulger (the only actual conservative leader of import to hold office in Massachusetts for roughly half a century) from public life. The governor succeeded, and it worked out swimmingly. In fact, Romney left the state in such great shape that Democratic challenger Deval Patrick—who would go on to earn a total of 9 votes (yes, you read that right) in the 2020 Iowa caucus—routed Romney’s chosen successor by a 20-point margin. Patrick, a progressive alumnus of the Clinton administration, in turn botched two terms so terribly that voters chose Charlie Baker to take charge when he left. There are multiple forces at work here, of course, but the governor’s role is undeniable: In Massachusetts, the Romney legacy is the complete eradication of any conservatism in either political party. Now that’s a winning record.
Romney’s habit of playing both sides—with the invariable effect of losing both—cost him just as dearly when he tried to move to the national arena. The devout Mormon had spent years waffling on the important social issues, and never—even in the widest swings of the pendulum—come down on the conservative side. Moderately supportive of both abortion and civil unions, Romney didn’t exactly inspire conservative voters to head to the polls. And that was nearly a decade ago, when the culture war was barely in its adolescence. Is Romney capable of leading the nation as it heads into its peak? Is Mitt “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country” Romney really the leader social conservatives want for the realignment coalition? Forget about “leader”—do we even want him there at all?
It’s not just social issues, either. He’s no Cheney, sure, but Romney does embody some of the worst foreign-policy instincts of the old-guard establishment. On virtually every global issue of importance that has come across his desk or warranted his comment, Romney has been woefully and dangerously wrong. Barack Obama nailed it in a 2012 debate: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
For all these reasons and more, we ought to be very wary of Romney’s proposal for a universal child allowance. That’s not to say the policy itself is bad; in fact, the content is fantastic. But there’s a little voice inside my head telling me, “That’s exactly what Mitt Romney wants you to think.” Taken in the full context of his actions over the past few years, a high-profile attempt to court realignment conservatives seems an awful lot like the worst-case scenario. And the risk should not be underestimated: anyone who could harness both the adoration of the liberal establishment and the energy of the conservative realignment would have a hard time losing an election.
It’s very important, then, not to let Romney harness that realignment energy. He has spent the last two decades constantly telling conservatives—as loudly as he can—that he isn’t one of us. Now, many of our best and brightest are eager to sing his praises because of one (admittedly positive) reform-minded proposal. But we should not be so easily fooled. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, there’s still a chance that it’s a neocon in disguise.
In 2008, when neocon par excellence John McCain headed up the Republican ticket, some very intelligent conservatives—including many at this magazine—publicly backed his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. Some of these rogues, who earned the label of “ObamaCons,” even stuck with him when a certain former Massachusetts governor tried to unseat the incumbent in 2012. I never understood the ObamaCons before. But if Mitt Romney weasels his way into the ’24 nomination, get ready for the KamalaCons—and count me in.