“The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”
— Charles de Gaulle
Nothing in Mitt Romney’s long political career became him like the leaving of it.
Romney’s announcement Wednesday that he was stepping aside after a single term in the U.S. Senate says a lot about Utah’s best-known and — outside the radical right wing of his own party — most admired politician. Much of it good.
And it says a lot about the state of politics in America today. A lot of it bad.
What happens next will be up to the voters of Utah.
Those voters will not only have a choice denied them for decades — to select a new senator in an open contest — but the responsibility to watch out that the state’s political class does not try to deny them full participation in that process.
In announcing that he would not seek re-election in 2024, Republican Romney noted that he would be well into his 80s at the end of another six-year Senate term. He said that his Baby Boom generation had had its chance and it was now time for a new generation of leaders to step up. A generation that will have to live with the consequences of the decisions that will now be made.
It is rare in American politics, especially these days, for anyone to walk away from power, or at least from prominence and influence, so willingly. The fact that Romney does not seem to think the Fate of the Republic rests solely in his hands, or in the hands of any other particular person or party, speaks well of him.
As examples of leaders who have also passed their sell-by date, Romney singled out the current president, Democrat Joe Biden, and the previous one, Republican Donald Trump.
Perhaps out of senatorial courtesy, he did not call out such personages as California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Republican, as colleagues who have recently demonstrated that advanced age may be catching up with them and their ability to keep up with their demanding jobs.
Beyond his age and his understanding that power needs to turn over from time to time, Romney would also be forgiven if he were just tired of it all.
His beloved Grand Old Party has been highjacked by a carnival barker with fascist leanings. Romney literally stood in the middle of a violent revolt inspired by that traitor and came perilously close to being a victim of violence himself.
Romney’s desire to work across the aisle, when possible, to reach solutions that serve the nation is increasingly derided by fellow Republicans, most of all here in Utah, as some kind of treason.
Romney’s two votes to convict Trump each time he was impeached is the picture of a Profile in Courage. And it guaranteed that he would have faced vigorous and well-funded primary opposition next year had he chosen to run.
Romney probably would have survived such a challenge. Unlike the system that was in place when the popular Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted by the votes of a few hundred delegates to the state Republican Convention in 2010, state law now allows candidates to reach the primary election by gathering signatures on a nominating petition. That means the process is much more likely to produce a result that reflects the desires of the broad party membership, not just that of a few vocal, true-believing activists.
If Democrats won’t listen to Romney because he is a Republican, and Republicans won’t listen to him because he is a real Republican, one who reminds them of the honorable group their party used to be, then it makes sense that our senator is ready to just pack it in and spend more time with his grandchildren.
What come next is not his job. It is ours.
With the Senate so narrowly balanced, every seat in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body will be crucial to every issue faced by the state, the nation and the world. The 2024 election here will draw national attention, and tons of outside money.
Romney’s successor will almost certainly be a Republican, given that party’s supermajority in voter registration and activism. The question is, what kind of Republican? The kind that stands in the grand tradition of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan? Or the kind that can’t open its mouth without embarrassing itself and the nation?
The last time the voters of Utah were presented with a Senate election with no incumbent was in 1992, when Jake Garn retired and was replaced by Bob Bennett. (The election in 2018, when Romney replaced long-time Sen. Orrin Hatch, doesn’t really count, as Hatch only agreed to stand aside with the understanding that Romney would replace him, and the party fell in line.)
Voters must be on the lookout for efforts by Utah Republican leaders to water down whatever influence they may have over the process of choosing our next senator.
Legislative leaders are often heard to float ideas that include undoing the petition route to the primary ballot — leaving the decision once again in the hands of a very few people — and undermining Utah’s nation-leading and highly successful system of an all-mail ballot.
With the path now clear, there will be many Utahns of different political leanings eager to jump into the race.
It will be up to the voters to consider the choices, demand their right to vote and at least present to the United States Senate a new Utahn we won’t have to be ashamed of.