By Emma Brockes* – The Guardian
Mitt Romney and his ilk were once critics of the president. But now, when it suits them, they’re backing him again
One unlikely effect of Donald Trump being in office has been a rise in the reputation of more moderate Republicans. In 2012, when Mitt Romney was running for president, he seemed like the incarnation of monied interests – a man who would defend beyond all other principles the right of the American millionaire to be taxed at 13%. He was out of touch, and cynically motivated. Whenever I saw a photo of Romney, I would suffer a surge of dislike.
Then came Trump. Such is the warping effect of the bar being so lowered, a man who wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and ban same-sex marriage has somehow become known for being somewhat progressive. In the first days after Trump’s victory, Romney tried and failed to suck up to the president to snag the secretary of state role. But as Trump’s outrages grew, so the senator for Utah became one of his fiercest critics, culminating this February when Romney voted to charge the president with abuse of power.
Catching sight of Romney on TV would, suddenly, bring on a warm sentiment. Wow, I thought, we really got that guy wrong. Look at how fine and upstanding he is – even his aggressive side-parting looks like a strike for decency in the face of Trump’s lassitude. Maybe you can, after all, work in private equity and still have a conscience.
That sentiment was blown apart this week when Romney announced he would vote to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, all but ensuring Trump has the votes to nominate a new supreme court justice before the presidential election on 3 November. He accompanied this announcement with a statement of such staggering bad faith that it seemed designed to mock the naivety of those who’d briefly warmed to him.
My liberal friends,” said Romney, “have over many decades gotten very used to the idea of having a liberal court, and that’s not written in the stars. It’s also appropriate for a nation, which is, if you will, centre-right, to have a court which reflects a centre-right point of view.”
It’s not so much that this statement of Romney’s was wrong – although it was. A Gallup poll at the end of 2019 found that, while 37% of Americans identified as conservative, the rest of the country identified as either moderate (35%) or liberal (24%), which, even if you go along with the interpretation that this means the country skews right, is undermined by other surveys. Positions conventionally thought of as liberal are held by clear majorities in the US, including support for paid maternity leave and increases to the minimum wage. In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that 61% of Americans believed abortion should remain legal. Beyond which, of course, the popular vote went to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
If Romney is wrong in his characterisation of the US as centre-right, it’s a less grievous error than his cynical mischaracterisation of the person Trump is likely to pick as his supreme court nomination. For Trump to win the election, he will have to get out the white evangelical vote – a demographic that in our wildest dreams can’t be characterised as centre-right. This crowd, 78% of whom supported Trump in 2016, has lately been showing signs of disaffection, with a poll in June this year indicating a drop to 69%.
The promise of a ban on abortion is likely to change this and reinspire evangelicals’ enthusiasm for Trump – that is, if his supreme court nomination allies with their special interest. Romney must know, as well as anyone, that Trump’s candidate will not be “centre-right”, or centre anything. They will be hardline, with an eye on overturning abortion rights enshrined in the 1973 Roe v Wade judgment, and pandering to voters who don’t believe in evolution. This is not, to put it mildly, a centrist position.
Even this fudge of Romney’s, however, is a less dire mischaracterisation than the one many of us formed about “moderate” Republicans. Perhaps Romney and his ilk did, briefly, find their spine when dealing with Trump – but only when it was in their political and personal interests to do so.
Had Romney been made secretary of state, would he have criticised the president? In all likelihood not. And while banning abortion was never a central issue for Romney, he will embrace it for a chance to secure another conservative justice on the supreme court and keep the presidency in Republican hands.
He knows the president is morally bankrupt. It was an error for us to imagine it mattered to him.
* Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist based in New York. She is the author of She Left Me The Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me.
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