Enough with the Mitt Romney adulation! The GOP hasn't been a serious "policy" party in decades

"Traditional" Republican views on everything from taxes to abortion failed, clearing a path for a Trumpist takeover

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published September 15, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) answers questions in his office after announcing he will not seek re-election on September 13, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) answers questions in his office after announcing he will not seek re-election on September 13, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Beltway press' longing for a stern-but-loving Republican daddy, who will bring our naughty nation in line, has always had an erotic tinge to it. In a widely shared Atlantic piece, drawn from his upcoming biography of Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, McKay Coppins allowed the subtext to edge alarmingly close to the text.  "[O]ne can't help but become a little suspicious of his handsomeness," Coppins gushes. "The jowl-free jawline. The all-seasons tan. The just-so gray at the temples of that thick black coif."

It seems Georgia politician Stacey Abrams isn't the only one moonlighting as a steamy romance author. I rolled my eyes throughout Coppins' piece, except for the parts where Romney dropped the daddy act to share bitchy gossip about his fellow senators. But, as far as mainstream pundits are concerned, Romney can totally get it. Coppins' article was released simultaneously with Romney's announcement that he's retiring from the Senate, and the reception Romney got was fawning. 

"Romney bows out, leaving a legacy that would make his father proud," read the Washington Post headline of a Karen Tumulty column. She went so far as to credit Romney with "paving the way for national health-care reform," ignoring the fact that Romney ran for president in 2012 on a promise to repeal Obamacare. Tumulty's take was typical, as the press drowned Romney in words like "noble," "principled," and "courageous." The hosannas on the "liberal" MSNBC grew to deafening levels.

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All of this adulation is due mainly to the fact that Romney is the rare Republican holding elected office who is willing to state the obvious: That Donald Trump is a monster and a criminal who has no business in elected office.

But the problem with all of this Romney love is not that I personally feel sexually harassed by it. It's that it fails to account for how Romney and other "traditional" Republicans are responsible for the rise of Trump and the MAGA movement. And not just because Romney and his ilk were only too happy to play along with Trump, even as he was pushing the racist "birther" conspiracy theory during the 2012 election cycle. It's because they spent decades married to policy views that range from wildly unpopular to bat guano terrible, making it easy for a demagogue to come in with a platform of "who cares about policy, let's just be super-racist." 

Romney obviously disagrees, praising himself for supposedly being the sober-minded policy guy:

But he won't acknowledge that the rampant policy failures of Republicans are why the party has no path forward, except to become a fascist cult focused on settling imaginary scores. So let's review some of the greatest hits of the pre-Trump era of traditional Republican "ideas." 

All this adulation is due mainly to the fact that Romney is the rare Republican holding elected office who is willing to state the obvious: That Donald Trump is a monster and a criminal who has no business in elected office.

Cutting taxes for the rich: This has been the number one Republican priority for decades, even though the first George Bush admitted it was "voodoo economics." After decades of rising income inequality, no one believes the money will "trickle down" to everyone else. It has no real support outside of the wealthy people who benefit. Eight in 10 Americans disapprove of this policy. Even 43% of Republican voters don't like it. 

"Family values." It's not just that most Americans now support abortion rights and same-sex marriage. People are souring on the religious right and even abandoning religion altogether in record numbers. 

Invading Iraq: I won't belabor how terrible this was. I will just remind readers that it was the signature "achievement" of the last Republican president before Trump. 

Health care: As far as I can tell, the GOP view of health care policy amounts to, "Have you considered just dying?" As with many issues, their own voters reject the party's views, and will routinely vote to give themselves Medicaid even as party leaders try to stop them. 

Climate change denialism. Not talked about much in the press, but there's good reason to believe that decades of flat-out denying basic scientific facts did serious damage to the GOP in the eyes of younger voters. Trump may be a gold medal-level Olympian in the sport of lying, but he is building on a legacy of Republicans who would lie about the existence of gravity, if it pleases their corporate masters.

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One could go on forever, but the bigger picture is this: On policy, Republicans simply have nothing to offer. They won't improve people's lives or fix existing problems. They only survived as long as they did because of gerrymandering and a tilted electoral map, backed by an unbelievable amount of money spent on right-wing propaganda like Fox News. 

Trump understands the power of cynicism in politics all too well, and so was able to exploit this situation. He just sidestepped the policy issue altogether and instead offered something different: Naked hatred. Bigotry. Exciting conspiracy theories. And, crucially, a desire to destroy democracy altogether. After all, debating policy only matters if you're trying to persuade people. If your goal is to crush them under your boot, there is no need to worry overmuch if they like your policies or not. 

Again, Trump wouldn't have gone this far without traditional Republicans like Romney laying the groundwork for decades. Republicans have long known that their policy views are unpopular and won't win them elections, and so they've increasingly looked for ways to get power through cheating. Mainly, that was by passing laws that restricted voting access for people of color and young people, who tend to lean more Democratic. Romney is one of the guilty parties in this, even going so far as to compare President Joe Biden's efforts to protect voting rights with Trump's lies about the 2020 election.

Romney whined that voting rights advocates accuse their opponents of having "racist inclinations." But what matters here is not what is in anyone's heart. It's totally possible, likely even, that many Republicans back voter suppression not because they hate Black people, but because they hate losing elections. But the effect of these laws and this rhetoric is the same: It implanted and reinforced the idea, with Republican voters, that there is something tawdry and illegitimate about Black people voting. Trump exploited that sensibility with his Big Lie, which rested on accusations that votes from racially diverse cities are necessarily "frauds." 

There were many opportunities over the years for Republicans to forge another path. They could have moderated their views on social issues.  They could have gone the route of Richard Nixon, conceding that environmental concerns should trump a mindless anti-regulatory stance. They could have raised taxes on the rich with the pro-capitalist argument that it increases business investment. Considering that they still got nearly half of the votes with their unpopular policies, they really didn't have to change much at all to be successful. Just be slightly less terrible on some issue, any issue. 

But they didn't do that and increasingly had nothing positive to offer to voters. That opened the door for an authoritarian demagogue, who built his power not on policy ideas, but on a promise he would hurt all the folks that conservative white people don't like. Romney doesn't deserve an ounce of credit. He may be unhappy with what his own failure of imagination helped usher in, but ultimately, this is still largely the fault of him and other "traditional" Republicans. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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