Bret Stephens: Romney shows what political courage is like

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, right, departs after the impeachment acquittal of President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

To honor the memory of Kirk Douglas, who died this week at 103, I watched “Lonely Are the Brave” Thursday night. The 1962 classic is about a 20th century cowboy at mortal odds with modern life — a roaming spirit who won’t be stopped by wire fences, prison bars, search helicopters or sadistic lawmen.

The men and women in the film are short on talk but strong in character. In other words, the exact opposite of our politicians today.

It was good to see “Lonely Are the Brave” at a moment when the closest Washington had to the film’s hero was Mitt Romney, who, alone among Republicans, voted to convict and remove President Donald Trump from office for abuse of power.


Was this the same man who denounced Trump as a “con man” in March 2016 and then auditioned to be his secretary of state that November? Who, as governor of Massachusetts, pioneered a version of Obamacare in 2006 only to denounce Obamacare when he ran for president in 2012? Who by turns has called himself a “progressive” and “moderate” Republican, as well as a “severely conservative” one?

One and the same. Yet the senator from Utah finally seems to have found the hill he’s willing to die on. It’s courage that demands respect.

I’ve been reading and rereading Romney’s moving and masterly Senate floor speech Wednesday, in which he explained his vote. “I will only be one name among many, no more, no less, to future generations of Americans who look at the record of this trial,” he said in his peroration. “They will note merely that I was among the senators who determined that what the president did was wrong, grievously wrong.”

The central theme of Romney’s address is obligation: the things to which we are bound, and those to which we are not. Romney says, and clearly believes, that he is bound by the Constitution, his oath to God, the evidence, his conscience and the judgment of history.

What doesn’t bind him: loyalty to president and party, the opinions of his constituents, the need to “stand with the team” or — most specious of all — the idea that, whatever the facts, the Senate is obliged to acquit Trump so that voters can render their own verdict in November.

Yet there is no constitutional case to leave to voters decisions that belong only to Congress — the dark road Mitch McConnell went down when he denied Merrick Garland a confirmation hearing in 2016, on the theory that “the American people” should choose Antonin Scalia’s replacement. The whole concept of small-r republicanism rests on the idea that self-government works only when public opinion is filtered through multiple institutions and wiser heads, not merely flushed through Congress like sewage in a drain.

Conservatives used to believe this, just as they used to believe that the branches of government were coequal; that political dirty tricks should never be normalized; that embattled allies must not be enlisted in such tricks; that, as Judge Laurence Silberman once said, “The most heinous act in which a democratic government can engage is to use its law enforcement machinery for political ends”; that innocence isn’t established by the failure to get away with the intended crime; and that acquittal isn’t vindication. Among the things now permanently lost to Republicans amid their supposed victory in the impeachment saga is the hope of having a leg to stand on when, in the fullness of time, a future Democratic president behaves toward them exactly the way Trump behaved last year.

Also lost: that once deeply held American ideal that the person who says “no” when everyone else says “yes” (or vice versa) doesn’t defy democracy but ennobles it. The right-wing vituperations descending on Romney, directed by the president and amplified through his media minions, are no better than the left’s cancel-culture warriors, seeking to wreck the lives of anyone who falls short of expectations or doesn’t toe the ideological line.

To his credit, Romney knew this would come: Like Kirk Douglas’ cowboy in “Lonely Are the Brave,” nobody breaks out of prison, physical or ideological, without expecting a posse. “I’m sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters,” Romney predicted, knowing that Trump never disappoints the meanest expectations.

But even Romney’s bitterest critics, left and right, ought to give him this: He voted without regard for personal advantage, without fear of partisan obloquy, and without an eye on the easy way out — all for the sake of his own self-respect.

The country would be a better place today if more people in positions of authority acted similarly.

A line frequently (if probably erroneously) attributed to Andrew Jackson is that “one man with courage makes a majority.” What happened in the Senate this week shows how wrong that line usually is. But if Mitt Romney’s lonely vote proves anything, it’s that political courage makes a patriot.

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.