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The Romney retirement

The statesman and senator from Utah shifted many positions in a decadeslong political career

U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks to reporters in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 13. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

The Romney retirement
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Recently, U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, announced his intention not to seek a second term. It had been speculated that the longtime politician would be vulnerable to a primary defeat due to his opposition to former President Trump, including voting twice for impeachment. Recent polls, however, suggest his approval ratings in the Beehive State are still fairly strong.

In a long-form profile by journalist McKay Coppins in The Atlantic, Romney seemed weary of the partisanship that has gripped Congress and, over the last few years, has unburdened himself to Coppins, who will soon be out with a new biography.

What does Mitt Romney’s retirement mean for American politics? First, we should commend him for a long, distinguished career. The son of a Michigan governor and one-time presidential candidate who championed civil rights and was an early critic of the Vietnam War, America’s most prominent Mormon politician began his public service with an unsuccessful run for the Senate from Massachusetts. This campaign was against the scion of the Kennedy family, Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Then, in the late ’90s, Romney was summoned to save the scandal-plagued Olympic games before running for Massachusetts governor in 2002. He won that election and served for four years, enacting many conservative reforms and pioneering state-funded healthcare, a template that won bipartisan applause and became, much to conservatives’ chagrin, a template for Obamacare.

In 2008, Romney ran for the Republican presidential nomination in a spirited battle with the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He lost that effort but ran again in 2012, winning the GOP nomination but falling short against the incumbent President Barack Obama.

In one sense, the departure of Mitt Romney from elected office is a loss for decency. He is undoubtedly an admirable family man, a devoted husband, and a beloved father. He has demonstrated competence in executive leadership in every office he has served. And his ability to get bipartisan legislation passed in the Senate will be missed.

What we can be sure of is that Mitt Romney, governor, presidential candidate, and senator, has had a distinguished career and lived a distinguished life.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that, like most successful politicians, Sen. Romney’s career has taken some ideological twists and turns. As a candidate for Senate against Kennedy, he ran as unapologetically pro-choice. When he ran for governor of Massachusetts, he ran as a fiscal conservative and talked little about social issues. Midway through his gubernatorial term, he had a change of heart and became pro-life. His conversion to the issue was welcome and seemed sincere. He has, to his credit, been a reliable vote for life in his time in the Senate. Still, the lurch right was noticeable and didn’t stop there. When he ran against McCain in 2008, he ran as the conservative option, staking out positions well to the right of the senator from Arizona, including on immigration, entitlement reform, and other issues.

In 2012, he was the establishment candidate, routinely attacked in the primary by rivals such as former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. In a clumsy attempt to shore up his bona fides with the primary electorate, he declared himself “severely conservative.” And also as a mark against him, Romney would later come to support the “Respect for Marriage Act,” the law that statutorily codifies the redefinition of marriage for federal purposes.

In the fall campaign against President Obama, Romney ran along with former Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. The Obama campaign, along with a compliant media, conducted a shameful campaign, painting the family man as a greedy monster, ready to fire people, hurt women, and empower Wall Street. It worked, and Romney was gracious in defeat. Yet many of the themes Romney raised in 2012, such as the danger of pulling troops from Iraq too soon, the rise of Russia, and entitlement reform turned out to be prescient, and one wonders that if he had prevailed, how different the world would be.

What we can be sure of is that Mitt Romney, governor, presidential candidate, and senator, has had a distinguished career and lived a distinguished life, even if his late-in-life lament at the shape-shifting positions of his Senate colleagues can, upon close examination, be seen in his own time in the political fray. And yet, we can commend the 76-year-old statesman for hanging up his jersey and stepping aside for a new generation of leaders. If only the leading candidates for president in both parties would follow suit.

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His forthcoming book is Agents of Grace. He is also a bestselling author of several other books, including The Original Jesus, The Dignity Revolution, The Characters of Christmas, The Characters of Easter, and A Way With Words and the host of a popular weekly podcast, The Way Home. Dan holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry from Dayspring Bible College, has studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Angela have four children.

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