I first covered U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney in 2012, when he was "former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney," then running for president.
At the time, Romney was so gee-whiz and perfectly presented that he was hard to take seriously. It was like Barbie's Ken was running for president, if Ken had political consultants and a mansion with a car elevator in California. Regrettably, I often referred to Romney on social media as "Mittens."
The Mitt Romney of 2012 didn't connect with many voters, it turned out, and President Barack Obama was easily re-elected to a largely successful second term. But the Obama years also gave rise to the Donald Trump era, which eventually led Romney to run for the U.S. Senate. As Trump's opposite in nearly every way, Romney wanted to provide a counterpoint to the president he saw as not just dishonest but dangerous.
Once elected to the Senate, a different Romney, maybe the real Romney, emerged. He was still earnest, but also frank, self-deprecating and, in his forthcoming biography, "Romney: A Reckoning," brutally forthright about what he has seen in Washington since then.
That same gee-whiz quality was transformed into a sort of conscience for Senate Republicans, whether they wanted one or not. That frequently left him on the outside looking in, but always speaking up.
Media coverage of Romney's retirement announcement last week has mostly focused on his statement that being in his 70s is part of the reason he's going. And it's true that he warned his fellow senior citizens, including President Joe Biden and Trump, to give it up and let the kids in their 50s and 60s lead the country.
But an extraordinary excerpt from Romney's biography released the same day as his announcement makes it clear that he is leaving the Senate for the same reason he came — because he fears American democracy is dangerously close to being broken forever.
But what he didn't realize when he ran for the Senate, but says he does know now, is that too many of his fellow Republicans like the brokenness. In fact, they depend on it.
It's a warning to the rest of us about the deepest rot in Washington and the dangers ahead if new leaders don't step in and change course.
The book came from weekly conversations between Romney and journalist McKay Coppins over several years.
It reveals a cliquish, high school culture inside the GOP Senate caucus, which is actually endemic to both parties and nothing new on Capitol Hill. But Romney also talks about his own disillusionment as he watched his fellow Republican senators disparage and even laugh at then-President Donald Trump privately, only to go along with him in public to protect their own hides.
He should first consider what is best for his re-election, a fellow senator counseled him, followed by what's best for the party and then for his state.
The go-along attitude continued throughout Trump's term and after Trump lost the 2020 election as he worked feverishly to overturn the elections in Georgia and across the country.
Romney said his breaking point came on Jan. 6, 2021. He believed the insurrection had been caused not just by Trump's combustible rhetoric, but also by far-right Republican senators who had fanned the flames among GOP voters for months. When he saw U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley huddling for safety as the Capitol was being stormed, the book recounts him yelling at Hawley, "You're the reason this is happening!"
As the weeks passed, Romney began to watch Republicans going along with Trump not just to save their jobs, but also out of fear for their families' safety as violent threats became routine. With Republican challengers already planning to run against him and angry voters turning up at events to yell at him, Romney made the decision to leave.
"A very large portion of my party really doesn't believe in the Constitution," he told Coppins.
A quick snapshot of Capitol Hill this week will tell you that the Trump-driven chaos that Romney describes in his book is not just flourishing, it's ruling the day.
On the Senate side, Alabama's Tommy Tuberville is blocking senior military promotions for every branch of service over abortion language in a defense-spending bill. Approving military promotions is typically one of the easiest lifts on Capitol Hill, but not this year.
On the House side, GOP leaders have no plan to pass the 11 appropriations bills they need to approve to avoid a government shutdown in two weeks. But they did announce an impeachment inquiry against Biden on Tuesday that Trump and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene had demanded.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Trump ally, delivered a floor speech calling the impeachment inquiry a "baby step" and scolding House Speaker Kevin McCarthy like a toddler. If McCarthy does not "come into full compliance" with conservatives' expectations, Gaetz warned, he'll call a vote to depose him as speaker. On Thursday, McCarthy told Gaetz to just try it.
Cheering it all on from the sidelines have been Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. According to Politico, DeSantis told the members threatening a shutdown, "I've got your back, don't give up the fight." All the while, those 11 appropriations bills sat untouched.
Chaos, confusion and self-serving delusion — Romney described it all and it's only gotten worse.
The ultimate message of Romney's biography and of his decision to leave is that American democracy is under serious threat — but there was little that he, a senator and former presidential nominee, could do to save it.
It's both a warning and a challenge for someone new to step up to the plate — and a reminder that life under President "Mittens" should not have been so easily dismissed.