In the summer of 1964, Governor George Romney traveled to San Francisco for the Republican National Convention. The GOP was reeling from an insurgency of self-proclaimed conservatives intent on changing the party root and branch. Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and wanted to purge liberals from the party, caused a rupture on the right by capturing the presidential nomination.

Romney was deeply skeptical of Goldwater and his project to redefine the Republican Party. A devout Mormon who had been born in Mexico and who became CEO of the American Motors Corporation before running for governor, Romney viewed himself as a Republican in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln. He passionately supported civil rights even as his own church banned black members from the priesthood. It was the Republican fusion of liberal and conservative principles—and its marrow-deep commitment to equal rights and human freedom—that Romney believed was imperiled by the Goldwater insurrection.

Among Goldwater’s supporters was a band of activists and conspiracy theorists. And Romney knew that their illiberal spirit would invariably disfigure the character of the party. At the Republican National Convention, he urged Republicans against yielding to the forces that the party was brought into existence to resist. His warning fell on deaf ears. When Goldwater later took the podium, the convention hall erupted in applause while Romney remained quietly seated. A teenage Mitt Romney who had joined his father at the RNC had only a limited sense of the conservative revolution underway, but he would later say, “If thousands of people were cheering and Dad was standing alone, I knew he was right and they were wrong.”

This anecdote is told in Romney: A Reckoning, by McKay Coppins. A staff writer at the Atlantic, Coppins has written a highly readable biography of a man whose public life has been lived out in large measure as an homage to his father. In Romney’s view, his father “paid a tragic price for his ideals,” and few readers of this book will come away with a different conclusion about Romney fils.

The junior senator from Utah has been an outspoken dissident in Donald Trump’s GOP, but this character portrait will be of value to partisans of all stripes who wish to understand the fate of an intelligent and even-tempered man who is nonetheless not quite talented or crafty enough for the game of politics. Romney will also repay the interest of anyone who savors irony. For despite never having been a “movement conservative,” Romney has exhibited the conservative sensibility more consistently and at greater political cost than the operators of Conservatism, Inc.

For the past two years, Coppins was given extraordinary access to Romney, who announced last year that he’s on his way out of Washington, D.C. The author, a fellow Mormon, conducted 45 interviews with his subject and had access to hundreds of pages in private journals that Romney has kept since 2011.

Romney traces a fascinating narrative arc of a businessman with a strong ethical code who enters the political ring with the best of intentions and a technocratic bent but without an ideological North Star to guide him. Eventually, he contorts himself to placate the more partisan and less respectable factions of his party only to become the last honest man in defense of conservative orthodoxy after those same factions come under the sway of a decidedly un-conservative demagogue.

Readers will recognize Coppins’s description of Romney as “a walking amalgam of prep school manners and Mormon niceness and the practiced cool of the private equity set.” These were the qualities that initially led Romney to think himself fit for the presidency: not his inchoate political philosophy, but his demonstrable ability to solve problems.

It wasn’t to be. Since taking the national stage, Romney has consistently failed to connect with the Republican voter, and he eventually alienated the new Republican establishment. Coppins puts great emphasis on the fact that Romney fits uncomfortably in a party that has become fractious and characterized by what it stands against. When confronted by a great mob in their midst, Republican leaders have not channeled it to constructive purposes but rather barked with the pack. In this climate, Romney’s pragmatism and practical expertise have made him the odd man out.

Coppins’s narrative relies heavily on Romney’s interpretation of events, which is not always a wise decision. For instance, when Romney stumbled in the 2008 primaries, Coppins suggests that the candidate’s forthright confession of Mormon faith was a prominent factor in the loss. Attributing Romney’s thrashing in the Iowa caucuses to his faith gives short shrift to his inveterate political blunders. In 2008, he had undergone a political reinvention—notably on guns and abortion—but without fully attuning himself to the conservative base. Unable to make heads or tails of Romney, Republican regulars found him impossible to believe, much less to cast a ballot for. For all his Waspy manners and Mormon breeding, Romney spoke conservatism, said one observer, as a second language.

That Romney’s faith became a distinguishing mark for voters reflected the fact that little else about him stood out. And if Mormonism was regarded as an exotic faith on the hustings in Iowa, it had at least something to do with the fact that the Mormon faith is exotic. This is not to deny that some ignoramuses and bullies deemed it heretical. But Coppins’s suggestion that Romney was laid low by bigotry from “religious-right types” rings false. And it cannot account for how he won over many of the same voters just four years later.

In 2012, when Romney embarked on another presidential run, he convinced himself that the real “meat” of the conservative movement was fiscal policy. The Tea Party movement, infused with Goldwater’s spirit of immoderation, excoriated in apocalyptic tones unchecked government spending and excessive regulations and onerous taxes. According to this theory, government retrenchment was crucial to uniting the party and fostering economic rejuvenation.

But for Romney there was a catch. At a time when the Republican donor class and the conservative entertainment complex were incensed by President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), Romney found himself in the awkward position of having signed a superficially similar law when he was governor of Massachusetts to establish universal health care in the state. It was another point of divergence with the Republican base—or at least what he and his team conceived the base to be. This put Romney under yet more pressure to jettison a broad “One Nation Conservatism” in favor of a narrower cultural message and a more austere economic agenda.

This hard-line ideological program exacerbated the identity divide between Romney and the party he aspired to lead. He was told by his political operative Stuart Stevens, “The base is southern, evangelical, and populist. You’re a Yankee, Mormon, and wealthy.” The conclusion: “We’re going to have to steal this nomination.”

They didn’t know the half of it. Securing the nomination proved only a prelude to what Coppins correctly judges to have been “one of the pettiest, most forgettable presidential elections in modern history.” As Romney courted the respectable Republican establishment, he discovered that it had virtually disappeared. “A huge swath of their party,” Coppins notes, “had radicalized.” The combination of a recession and a Wall Street bailout as well as the election of a progressive black president had “inflamed the white-populist resentments that had always simmered beneath the surface of conservative politics.”

The Republican establishment stoked a politics of resentment and cultural reaction while failing to design a coherent and compelling plan to address and ameliorate the woes of the working class.

This is what made Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential nominee a fatal blunder. Ryan brought a pronounced pessimism to the Republican ticket, sounding the alarm about a fiscal “tipping point.” In addition to proposing a host of imprudent tax cuts and steep cuts in public spending, Romney was caught on tape arguing that “47 percent” of voters—the Democratic portion—were “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.” For a large share of middle-income voters, and not a few swing voters, this crude claim confirmed their worst suspicions about Republican priorities and principles. So far from being the party of aspiration and upward mobility, it seemed to have contempt for the working class and scant concern for their economic interests. The conservative establishment from which this talking point sprang had successfully refashioned Romney in its image.

Succumbing to a political program he didn’t truly understand is how Romney first found his way to Donald Trump, who, as Coppins reminds us, had been “loitering” around the Republican world for years disseminating the noxious conspiracy theory that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Although the celebrity magnate had become an unwelcome sideshow in the campaign, Romney nonetheless sheepishly flew to Las Vegas to collect his endorsement when it was offered. This disreputable gambit did positively no good for Romney’s electoral prospects.

Although Romney had tried to live up to the demands of the party elite, they blamed him for the ensuing defeat. He was bewildered by the loss of Republican power in America but did not notice that the party itself had changed. Long animated by an unshakable belief in the American future, the GOP had begun to look backward to a van-
ishing country. By 2016, this dubious nostalgia brought forth a leader who was fearful of the future.

Once Trump declared his bid for the presidency, Romney was determined to wreck it. Dispensing with his intrinsic sense of caution, Romney delivered a blistering speech against Trump’s “defective character, his failed businesses, his domestic policies, and his frighteningly weak grasp of foreign affairs.” Insisting that Trump was “a phony” and “a fraud,” he argued that he was not to be trusted with real power and urged Republicans to resist his nomination.

Romney’s spirited 11th-hour effort to stop Trump was to no avail. When Trump received the nomination of his party and then won the presidency—the moment of “reckoning” in the book’s title—Romney felt obliged to reenter the fray. As Coppins notes, Romney’s “late-in-life attempt at political repentance” stems from the fact that “watching Trump complete his conquest of the G.O.P. was even more devastating to Romney than losing his own election in 2012.” Romney was elected to the Senate and became Trump’s most withering enemy, countering lazy praise for the president or cheap excuses for his outrages.

To the delight of anti-Trump Republicans (and to the surprise of Democrats), Romney became the first senator in history to vote to remove from office a president of his own party over allegations that Trump had withheld military aid from Ukraine to pressure its president into launching investigations that would benefit Trump politically. Romney also cast a vote for the conviction of Trump after he sought to overthrow the results of the 2020 election. The alternative, Romney said on the Senate floor, would have been to disregard his oath to God and country while exposing his character to “the censure of my own conscience.”

It was after January 6 that Romney (and the nation) learned how few Republicans would stand in defense of the constitutional order when it came under open attack. However much Trump threatened the character of the republic, Republican officeholders judged the risk of alienating constituents—or even the possibility of assassination—to be a greater danger. Romney confided that much of his party “really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.” He has since been consigned to the political wilderness, reciting the creed and heaping abuse on the deserving.

But Romney also began to mull difficult questions, including his own culpability in what had become of his party: “Was the rot on the right new, or was it something very old just now bubbling to the surface?” It is a question that goes unanswered, but one for which the story of Romney’s father might offer a clue.

Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

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