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The Real Missed Romney Opportunity?
If it existed, it was in the Senate, not the White House
Political junkies have been abuzz the past several days about Senator Mitt Romney’s decision to retire, and by the candid excerpt from McKay Coppins’ forthcoming book about the former GOP standard-bearer that paints such a damning portrait of his colleagues. The swooning for a solitary man of principle has led some anti-Trump Republicans to muse about the alternate timeline in which Romney won the presidency in 2012 (a fantasy ably demolished by Damon Linker), and some progressives to scold Romney for finding his principles only when there was no longer any prospect for political advancement (Jamelle Bouie’s column is an illustrative example).
If Mitt Romney had a dramatic chance to make history, though, it wasn’t at either impeachment trial of the president, much less in his own runs for the presidency. No, the really tantalizing possibility is that Romney could have saved the Senate specifically, forcing it to become something else—something more like what it was intended to be.
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Coppins alludes to the moment in his article:
[I]n April, Romney pivoted to a new idea: He privately approached Joe Manchin about building a new political party. They’d talked about the prospect before, but it was always hypothetical. Now Romney wanted to make it real. His goal for the yet-unnamed party (working slogan: “Stop the stupid”) would be to promote the kind of centrist policies he’d worked on with Manchin in the Senate. Manchin was himself thinking of running for president as an independent, and Romney tried to convince him this was the better play. Instead of putting forward its own doomed candidate in 2024, Romney argued, their party should gather a contingent of like-minded donors and pledge support to the candidate who came closest to aligning with its agenda. “We’d say, ‘This party’s going to endorse whichever party’s nominee isn’t stupid,’ ” Romney told me.
So close. So close. But no. The idea of building a third party to give sober, centrist, elite endorsement to individual Democrats or Republicans couldn’t possibly beat back the tide of extremism and rabid partisanship. Indeed, the prospect of a “Stop the stupid” endorsement would probably spell certain death in most GOP primaries—and quite possibly in many Democratic primaries as well. And, as Romney himself realized, mounting a third-party challenge for the presidency would as likely as not throw the election to Trump rather than secure a second Biden term.
But there might just possibly have been a chance for a centrist third party in American politics at that pivotal moment—in the Senate.
The American Senate was not designed to be a partisan body. On the contrary—it was designed to be a vehicle for each state to represent its parochial interests, so that national policy reflected a broad agreement across a highly diverse country. Back when American parties were not particularly ideological, this presumption basically worked. There were conservative Democrats, mostly from the South, and liberal Republicans, mostly from the Northeast, but in general you expected farm state senators to represent farm interests, senators from New York to represent financial interests, etc. Senators still represent their state’s interests as best they can, but as states become more ideologically dominated by a single party, those interests are increasingly tied to the fortunes of that party. Meanwhile, senators are decreasingly chosen because they are delivering for their states, and increasingly chosen because of where the state lands in the national culture war. Finally, and most ominously, the senate bias toward smaller and more rural states wasn’t a problem for democracy when the senate wasn’t a particularly ideological body—it biased policy toward the interests and views of those states, but it didn’t particularly shape national policy against the interests of the majority. But now that the parties are highly ideological, that bias has a potentially profound impact on the trajectory of national policy. The Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, fruit of Republican control of the Senate at a pivotal moment in history, is the most glaring example of this in action.
I don’t think there’s any realistic process for reviving the non-ideological parties that America had for most of its history. But another way to “fix” the senate would be to make a majority for either party much less likely, thereby requiring cross-partisan cooperation to accomplish anything. As well, another way to reintroduce real competition to states with a strong partisan lean would be for there to be a third alternative that was neither Democratic nor Republican available to voters in solidly red or blue states where the other current national party is unlikely to ever have a chance to win at the national level.
This is where Romney’s opportunity lay. Imagine if, instead of fantasizing about being some kind of kingmaker above the parties and above the fray, he had positioned himself to be a kingmaker between the parties in the middle of the fray, jump-starting the creation of a new centrist party from among his own colleagues.
The obvious places to start would be with Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, who had already proven her ability to win reelection without her party’s backing, and who knew her 2022 reelection campaign would be against a Republican, and with Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, who has felt increasingly uncomfortable in the Democratic Party without ever really wanting to become a Republican. If they responded positively, Romney could have put out feelers to other senators already only loosely attached to their parties—to Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who in 2021 was a Democrat but has since left to become an independent, and to the two Maine senators, independent Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats, and Republican Susan Collins, who routinely wins reelection in part by distinguishing herself from the national GOP.
If we’re imagining that this gambit happened in early 2021, Romney could have reached out as well to the other Republican senators besides Murkowski and Collins who joined him in voting to convict former President Trump in his second impeachment trial: Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Richard Burr of North Carolina. None of these was very likely to join an explicitly centrist effort—for one thing, all of them were too conservative to be good ideological fits for a centrist party. But none was entirely inconceivable. Romney himself isn’t exactly a moderate in terms of his policy stances, for one thing. Toomey and Burr had already declined to run for reelection in 2022 because they knew their days as Republicans were numbered (the latter in part because he was tainted by scandal), so they would have little to lose. Soon after, Sasse decided to retire at a remarkably young age because he was just too principled for the political real world. Could he have been induced by vanity to take Romney’s overtures seriously? We’ll never know.
Finally, once Romney had a decent quorum ready to jump, he could put out feelers to Democrats and Republicans in good standing who had strong bi-partisan bonafides and somewhat moderate reputations—folks like Montana Democrat John Tester and Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, or West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capito. Would many of these senators plausibly have joined a new party, with all the risk that would entail of being attacked from both sides and losing ignominiously? Almost certainly not. But a large number wouldn’t be necessary to achieve the grouping’s initial objectives. A third party composed just of Romney, Murkowski, Manchin and Sinema would already have had enough support to put the Senate likely out of reach for either party in 2022, and make a 2024 takeover a tall order as well. Schumer and McConnell would not only have had to make a deal—they would have had to make it stick. The center party would thereby effectively have controlled the Senate’s agenda—and its rules.
That, in itself, might have created an incentive for other senators with the right profile to join the group—because they’d potentially have more immediate influence there than in either the Democratic or Republican parties. And the group’s influence over any legislation would potentially have been profound. In our timeline, when President Biden tried to pass anything, Schumer had to negotiate with Manchin and Sinema. In this alternate timeline, their position would be bolstered by the addition of Romney and Murkowski—and more left-wing Democrats would simply have to accept the results of the negotiation since they would know they had no majority of their own, and no real leverage to force them to comply.
Whether the gambit would have worked would have hinged on whether it survived the next election. The first test would have been Murkowski in Alaska—who did win against a Republican in 2022. But the 2022 elections would have been quite different generally if a right-winger like Toomey tried to win running as an independent, likely facing both Republican and Democratic opposition—the situation Sinema will face in Arizona in 2024. For one of their number to come in third would have been a heavy blow to the centrist idea. On the other hand, it’s also possible to imagine a centrist candidate unbeholden to either the national Democrats or the national Republicans making a serious play in a strongly blue or red state with a weak incumbent. There are deeply unpopular Republicans in the Senate—Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ted Cruz of Texas—who have nonetheless dispatched Democratic opponents because of the strength of the partisan lean of their states. Might they fare worse against an alternative who was business-friendly and anti-Trump, and who promised to caucus with the centrists rather than either the Democrats or Republicans? Meanwhile, the Northeast still elects moderate Republicans to governorships—folks like Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Chris Christie of New Jersey. They have little to no chance to win national office either as Republicans or as Democrats. But as members of an explicitly centrist party? They just might.
If the gambit had worked, you’d have wound up with a quorum of centrist senators holding the balance of power across several Senate cycles, preventing the ideological extremes of either party from setting the agenda. At the same time, there would be a consistent, pragmatic, small-c conservative opposition both to liberal Democrats on the coasts and to far-right Republicans in the South and mountain West. Both developments would surely have had an effect on the behavior of the major parties. The Senate would still be somewhat to the right of the center of the country, of course; the Democrats’ fondest hopes of national transformation would probably be done for. But the balance of power would rest with the center of the Senate, not the center of the Senate GOP. Structurally, therefore, it could go back to playing its proper constitutional role of being a moderating force in national politics.
Would it have worked though? I don’t honestly know. Centrism has always smelled like an elite-driven project, and in its first phase the new party would be dependent on candidates with existing strong in-state brands. Perhaps it would never have gotten beyond that phase, and would simply have died after a cycle or two. I don’t know that there’s any real demand for a centrist third-party alternative in Alabama—or in California, for that matter. Southern red states frequently have strong Democratic parties that are powerfully anchored in the Black community; they are generally more moderate than the national Democratic Party, but they are strong Democrats, not centrists, and I don’t know that a centrist party could win their votes. California Republicans, meanwhile, are dominated these days by the far right; we’re a long way from the era when Arnold Schwarzenegger was the face of the state’s GOP. Then there’s the question of whether the same kind of centrists would appeal to red state voters would appeal to blue state voters. I strongly doubt they would—and holding disparate styles of centrist together in a single party might prove impossible. Even Romney and Manchin, who got along well as colleagues and were committed to cross-partisan collegiality, are coming from very different places politically-speaking. They don’t obviously belong in the same party.
But just because it wouldn’t work everywhere doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work anywhere. I can imagine centrists providing a real alternative to the left in the Northeast on a national level just as they do at the state level. Similarly, I can imagine them providing a real alternative to the right in western states like Kansas, Utah and Montana. And the center could also be particularly appealing in closely divided states, even though they would risk becoming the spoilers. I note in that regard that Kyrsten Sinema’s ratings have improved among Democrats, Republicans and independents alike since she ditched her party. Her approval is still significantly below 50%, and Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego has been topping all the polls for months; Sinema hasn’t even decided if she’s running for reelection. But she’s clawed her way back to second place in a number of recent three-way polls. If someone as widely-dismissed as Sinema can get back in the mix by rebranding herself an independent, who’s to say the brand is hopeless?
Perhaps all the idea needed was a champion. And perhaps one was ready to hand. Alas, he lacked the vision to see that the white horse was never supposed to take him to the White House, but had already taken him just where he needed to be in order to fulfill his destiny.
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