Mitt Romney: The Last Honest Republican?
Diogenes the Cynic famously wandered the sunlit streets of ancient Athens carrying a lantern. He would approach people, briefly raise the lantern up to their faces, stare for a moment, and then move on to the next person. When asked what in the world he was doing carrying a lantern in broad daylight, he replied that he was looking for an honest man. Knowing what we know about Diogenes, we can bet that he never found one, nor was that even the point of his philosophical stunt.
Not much has changed in the last two and a half thousand years. Finding an honest person is difficult enough, and finding one in the halls of power may be well nigh impossible. The power-addicted and venal politicians of the ancient world also plague our own democratic system. Some things never change, it seems. Consequently, our age is one so cynical about politics that even the most famous ur-Cynic of them all would not stand out of the crowd today. Everyone's a Cynic now in their acceptance of humanity's debased nature, and no more is this the case than in politics.
But something strange happened this last week at the end of the President's impeachment trial in the Senate. For a few riveting minutes, an honest man appeared. I'm talking, course, about Utah Senator Mitt Romney, who broke ranks with his fellow Republicans to vote for the removal of the President for abuse of power.
Here is the video. If you haven't watched it yet, do so. Listen as he explains why he voted the way he did.
I respect that.
In this age of lazy cynicism and ironic detachment, our instinct is to always look for selfish ulterior motives, and when they are not immediately obvious, to then assume they must still lurk elsewhere.
"Why'd he do it?"
"What's his angle?"
"Did he do it just for attention."
"Is he just a jealous sore loser?"
"What silly, pointless moral preening!"
And so on.
Maybe he just did it because he thought it was the right thing to do?
What's implied in such reflexive suspicion is that there are no honest politicians anymore, just selfishly calculating party loyalists who talk a good game but then meekly get in line when it's time to vote, no matter what they actually believe. The uncomfortable truth is that the honest politician willing to deviate from the party line is now almost extinct, unable to adapt to the scorpions-in-a-bottle political realities of the early twenty-first century. Hell, perhaps this so-called honest politician never existed anywhere but in our imaginations, like unicorns and dragons.
That lends Diogenes' critique of humanity some merit, I suppose, though he was talking about you and me as much as our political leaders. What's the difference, though? People are sick of our politicians, but they'll send 90% of them back again next time. It's what we do, we self-sabotaging cynics. We hate the status quo, but embrace it nonetheless, and then hate it some more. Your side is scum, but mine's flawless. By lowering the bar of acceptable behavior in our leaders because we already assume them to be rotten, we've started a race to the bottom that is gaining momentum. The new rules create a political ecosystem where scoundrels thrive. The best among us see this and decide, quite rationally, to stay out of it.
Romney bucked this trend.
So here is your honest man, Diogenes! I didn't vote for Romney. I have never agreed with him on much of anything. Despite my approval of his courageous stand on the Senate floor this last week, there's very little we agree on politically beyond a reflexive, almost instinctive revulsion for the kind of vulgar, corrupt, and narcissistic behavior that governs so much of our political discourse these days.
Still, I agree with him on the absolute necessity of political propriety and the respect for institutions. Two sides can be miles apart on the issues, yet decorum and mutual respect, both for the individuals and the institutions, must reign for a democracy to survive.
Romney's vote showed remarkable moral courage at a time when it is sorely lacking. Standing up for a deeply held personal belief is tremendously difficult when everyone is telling you to do otherwise. Moral courage is doing what you truly believe to be right when it's most difficult, when the social and professional costs could be the highest.
Romney had every reason to go along with the rest of his fellow Senators in acquitting the President. They all took the easy way, whatever private misgivings and flaccid hand-wringing they may have expressed behind closed doors. In the end, they obeyed the Party, the Leader, and ignored any sense of duty to the Constitution or their conscience. That, my friends, is dishonest and, dare I say, cowardly. To his everlasting credit, however, Romney did right by his own conscience, a remarkable thing given the price he's now going to pay.
So watch what happens. He'll be mocked, ridiculed, belittled, and insulted for what he did. He already gets heckled in public from angry MAGA conservatives. I was going to list out some examples of the abuse so far, but why? It's predictable enough, we know what they'll say. It'll be the usual suspects casting the usual aspersions, attacking his credibility, consistency, character, and motives - Fox News, the President, Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, Laura Ingram, Tucker Carlson, all teaming up to do everything possible to tear Romney to pieces for his lack of fealty to the President. That's where we are, though. Unquestioned loyalty now trumps personal moral standards. An act of honesty is transformed into an act of treason, moral preening, and selfishness. Up is down and good is bad.
Maybe Diogenes was on to something, after all. An honest person cannot overcome a dishonest system. Most of us end up creatures of that dishonest system, making our quiet compromises and going along to get along, just like our politicians, who end up incentivized to place factional gain over the common good.
Remember when the Republican Party was filled with such individuals of noble character? You know, people who put God and country before loyalties to any Great Leader or Party. Senators swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, not the President. Romney, at least, remembered his oath and took it seriously and didn't announce beforehand that his mind was already made up and that nothing could change it.
So I'll never forget his brave and lonely act. Still, I'm worried that we've reached the point where obeying an oath and taking it seriously are matters of political expediency, rather than moral imperatives. Mitt Romney may be the last of a dying breed that does take these matters seriously, and may soon go extinct for it. At some point along the way, Republicans lost their way. The Grand Old Party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan became a mockery of its core values, angry, cruel, mocking, sneering, paranoid, petty, authoritarian, and intolerant. The party that used to be grounded in the core tenets of Christian faith and the Constitution is now an ironic fun-house mirror version of its former self.
The Party of Lincoln once before fell under the spell of an ideologue, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, who saw communist infiltrators in every corner of the government. In the early 1950s, he stoked the flames of the Red Scare, accusing officials and political opponents of being communists or soft on communism. His fever dream paranoia cowed the Senate until a soft-spoken lawyer, Joseph Welch, cried out during a Senate hearing as McCarthy once again zeroed in on yet another victim, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
Almost immediately, the spell was broken. The audience broke out in applause and McCarthy was done. Just like that. Done. He was later officially condemned by the U.S. Senate, the very venue where he had stoked fear and division for so long.
Sometimes the good guys win one.
Romney's vote wasn't one of those times, and he knew going in that it was a suicide mission. He knew that his vote would change nothing and perhaps irreparably damage his standing in the Republican Party. He chose the hard right rather than the easy wrong. That makes what he did count that much more in my eyes.