Mitt Romney is doing something nearly unheard of these days: He’s putting his country above his party. He’s voting his conscience when doing so comes at a cost. He’s not rationalizing weakness and timidity by prettying them up as virtues. He will vote to convict President Donald Trump, in an act of extraordinary political courage.
This decision would have negative ramifications for Romney in any era, but he faces particularly harsh consequences in this one, when political tribalism has never been more acute, when hating those who see things in politics differently than you do is fashionable, and when invective against perceived enemies is more emotionally powerful (and satisfying) then is affection for those you believe to be on your side.
We are living in the Era of Rage.
Mitt Romney knows this, and he therefore knows the attacks on him will be vicious. He will be accused of being a traitor not only by the president, a cruel and unforgiving man, but also by his fellow Republican lawmakers, the right-wing media complex, and even many of his constituents.
The truth is quite the opposite, of course. Romney, on whose presidential campaign I briefly worked in 2012, is doing something he believes is morally right even while knowing he will face quite a high cost, both professionally and personally.
This also needs to be said: Romney’s views are not all that rare among his Republican colleagues, who know in their hearts that what Trump did was inexcusable and indefensible, the crossing of a once unthinkable moral and ethical red line. Had a Democratic president done the same, it would easily have cleared their bar for impeachment and removal from office. What is rare, however, his Romney’s courage. He acted honorably, and he acted alone.
To see so many Republicans who know better tie themselves into ethical knots to justify their fealty to Trump—and then to watch them lash out defensively when they are called on it—is a sad and pitiable thing.
But Republicans aren’t alone in being exposed by Romney’s admirable conduct. Maybe Democrats and those in the media who delighted in vilifying Romney in 2012—Senator Harry Reid lied about Romney’s taxes; an Obama super PAC tied him to a woman’s cancer death—might, in their private moments, rethink and even feel some remorse for what they did. Maybe they will see, if only for a few fleeting seconds, that they allowed their partisanship to overwhelm their sense of decency, that they sought to destroy the reputation of a man of enormous personal integrity to further their political aims.
Maybe, too, they will begin to understand that people on both sides of the aisle engage in the politics of personal destruction—although Trump plays this game better than they do—and when both sides do it, great injury is inflicted not only on our politics but also on our civic culture.
There’s an old hymn with which Romney is familiar, “Do What Is Right.” The chorus includes this line: “Do what is right; let the consequence follow.” It’s one thing to sing those words. It’s an entirely different thing to live them out.
Mitt Romney has lived those words, and history will honor him for having done so.
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations and is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. He is also an Egan Visiting Professor at Duke University.