Sep 19, 2023

Mitt Romney retires.

Mitt Romney retires.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) answers questions in his office after announcing he will not seek re-election.(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Plus, a question about a "fake news" story in the media.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

Mitt Romney announces he will retire. Plus, a reader question about a potential "fake news" story.

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Quick hits.

  1. Iran freed five wrongfully detained Americans in exchange for clemency for five Iranians who had been convicted of nonviolent crimes. The U.S. is also giving Iran access to $6 billion of its funds that were frozen by American sanctions. (The swap
  2. Top leaders from over 145 countries will convene in New York City for the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Volodymyr Zelensky, who just dismissed his entire defense cabinet after a series of corruption scandals, is expected to speak at the U.N. before visiting Washington D.C. (The trip
  3. Hunter Biden has sued the IRS, alleging that it illegally disclosed his tax information and failed to safeguard personal records. (The lawsuit
  4. Bill Maher, Jennifer Hudson, and Drew Barrymore have all reversed decisions to resume their talk shows amid the ongoing writers strike. (The reversal
  5. President Donald Trump said he will skip the GOP debate on September 27 in California, instead opting to travel to Detroit to give a speech. (The speech)

Today's topic.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT). Last week, Romney announced he would not seek re-election in 2024, opting to retire after one term. Romney resisted pleas from colleagues like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) to stay in the Senate, citing his age and a changing party as reasons for his decision.

"At the end of another term I'd be in my mid-80s. Frankly it's time for a new generation of leaders," Romney said in a video statement. "While I'm not running for reelection, I'm not retiring from the fight."

Romney's decision likely means an end to a decades long political career that has spanned several levels of government and multiple states. Romney’s father, George, was the governor of Michigan and served in President Richard Nixon’s administration. Mitt Romney became a multimillionaire in the private equity business before running for governor himself, winning in 2002 in Massachusetts. He ran for president twice, first in 2008 and again in 2012, when he won the Republican nomination and ran against Barack Obama. Romney then moved to Utah where he was elected to the Senate in 2018. He is widely considered the most successful Mormon politician in American history. 

After his Senate election, Romney became one of the most outspoken critics of President Donald Trump and the only Republican senator who voted to convict him at both impeachment trials. Those votes, and his criticism of a new wave of Trump-like politicians, has caused his support in Utah to dip and many of his Republican colleagues to now view him as a pariah. In June, a Deseret News poll found that Utah Republicans said Trump best represented them compared to Romney by a 47% to 39% margin, though Romney’s poll numbers have appeared to rebound recently

By stepping away, Romney leaves Utah's Senate seat likely to be taken over by a Trump-aligned politician more like Mike Lee, the other Republican senator from Utah.

In stepping down, Romney said he hoped to see Biden and Trump both leave politics and let younger candidates run, and said he planned to dedicate his time to encouraging younger Americans to enter politics. Trump called the retirement "fantastic news" for America.

Shortly after news of the retirement broke, journalist McKay Coppins published an excerpt from his forthcoming biography on Romney, which includes details on the way Republicans have disparaged Trump behind closed doors, how they navigated Trump’s impeachment inquiry, harsh criticisms about the direction of his party, and Romney’s firsthand experience during the January 6 riots.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions to Romney’s announcement from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left offers a mix of praise and criticism in response to the news, noting the many ways in which Romney stands out from the rest of the GOP. 
  • Some say Romney was a force for good in his willingness to work across the aisle, even as he was attacked by his Republican colleagues for it. 
  • Others suggest that Romney ignores the role he played in helping create the very GOP he criticizes. 

In the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg called out Romney’s “tragic ambivalence.”

In announcing he won’t run for reelection, Romney said it’s time for a new generation of political leadership. “The problem with this argument is that Romney despises the next generation of Republican leaders. He’s watched the transformation of Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio into a Trump lackey with disgust… He’s similarly contemptuous of Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri for indulging the lies that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection. I doubt he’s a fan of the Florida congressman Matt Gaetz or the hucksterish presidential aspirant Vivek Ramaswamy,” Goldberg said.

Romney has “given up on a second Senate term because his brand of stolid, upstanding conservatism has become obsolete, replaced with a conspiratorial, histrionic and sometimes violent authoritarianism. His reluctance to say so clearly, at the cost of breaking with his party definitively, is evidence of something tragic in his character.” Further, “by putting age at the center of his argument, he’s setting himself above the fray, pretending that both parties are equally at fault in bringing the country to this perilous pass. Romney has shown far more decency and courage in response to Trump than almost all his colleagues, but in this case, he’s still pulling his punches.”

The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board said “it’s time for Utah voters to step up” when deciding who will take over Romney’s Senate seat.

“Nothing in Mitt Romney’s long political career became him like the leaving of it,” the board wrote. “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.” The GOP has been “highjacked by a carnival barker with fascist leanings.” Meanwhile, “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.”

For Utahns, the 2024 election  “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?”

Also In the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie wondered if Romney’s “harsh words” for his GOP colleagues are really “sublimated criticism of himself.”

Romney’s announcement has generated “a number of odes, retrospectives and more or less hagiographic assessments of his political career, each colored by his genuinely admirable opposition to Donald Trump. Romney was, after all, the first senator in American history to ever vote to remove a president of his own party from office,” Bouie said. But Romney also gave Trump credibility by accepting his endorsement in the 2012 Republican presidential primary, “and beyond Trump, Romney — in both of his campaigns for president — eagerly and enthusiastically pandered to the right-wing rage and resentment that eventually found its champion in Trump.” 

Romney was “willing to say whatever it took to win power,” which makes it interesting that he “has such tough words” for his colleagues who he says do the same. “But speaking as an observer of his career, it seems to me that there are tough words that Romney ought to have for himself. And if he isn’t willing to go that far in public, he should at least do more than leave the scene with a parting jab at the former president.” If Romney is serious about challenging extremism in the Republican Party, he can prove it by telling the country “exactly who he thinks should prevail” in a 2024 Trump-Biden rematch.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is also conflicted in their takeaways from Romney’s announcement, particularly on his criticism of Republicans. 
  • Some laud his consistent focus on policy over politics, even as his party has moved away from this approach.
  • Others say Romney’s career has been defined by cowardice and self-adulation. 

In National Review, Philip Klein said Romney was “no profile in political courage.”

“Though [Romney] may be remembered for his most recent role as a ‘reasonable’ anti-Trump Republican senator, his broader career is one of political shape-shifting. He never had consistent ideological principles, he helped usher in an era of greater government control over health care, and he played a key role in the political rise of Donald Trump,” Klein wrote. “During his runs for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and 2012, he desperately sought to change his image from being an independent-minded northeastern Republican to becoming a staunch conservative.” Further, “Romney’s weak-kneed, consultant-driven 2012 campaign is often cited as one reason why Trump’s pugilistic brand of politics took hold of the party four years later.”

As senator, Romney “started to adopt the posture for which he is most recently known: that is, as an independent-minded Republican who was willing to stand up to Trump when few others in his party would.” But this attitude is not consistent with who he was earlier in his career, when he regularly changed his beliefs with “breathtaking” speed. “Perhaps Romney was ultimately embarrassed by his political legacy up to that point of soulless pandering…Or perhaps he never intended to serve a second term,” Klein said. “Either way, Romney should not be remembered as a profile in political courage.”

In CNN, Lanhee J. Chen, the policy director for Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said the senator “has left a remarkable legacy.”

“Romney possesses a pragmatic streak that has allowed him to partner with both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate on issues as wide ranging as infrastructure reform, religious liberty and overhaul of entitlements,” Chen wrote. “The departure of such a decent and dignified figure from public life is a loss for our country and politics. In my view, Romney is one of the last remaining true policy wonks in Congress—someone who takes the time to understand a problem, revels in becoming well-versed in the details and then makes informed decisions on how he should vote. He has never been strictly rooted in politics or ideology.”

While Romney has repeatedly expressed dismay at his party, he is also “not above self-critique.” Recently, “his observations about the state of the GOP have often been followed by self-critical musings about the role he might have played in facilitating the environment that exists today,” and “that he is willing to both reflect on and admit some fault is, in part, what defines him as a leader of conscience.” Now, “unencumbered” and “untroubled” by a future election campaign, Romney has the opportunity to enjoy a “grand finale” by “moving the needle even a little on the issues he cares about.”

In The American Conservative, Declan Leary wrote that Romney is both a “coward” and a “narcissist.”

"When the final history of the American Empire is written, Mitt Romney, if remembered at all, will be remembered as a coward.” As the leader of the private equity investment firm Bain Capital, he “was complicit in the theft of innumerable American jobs, which were resold for profit to the tyrants of the Second and Third Worlds.” As a politician, “the best thing that can be said of him is that he was never shrewd enough to lead his people to destruction.” The picture that emerges from excerpts of his forthcoming biography is “the overpowering image of a narcissist.”

“Mitt Romney’s first and final belief is in Mitt Romney. This is why he left his home state of Michigan first to build a fortune, and then to usurp the old populist order of Massachusetts, the historic cradle of American conservatism. It is why, in that first successful campaign, Romney abandoned any pretense of both principle and conservatism, racing his opponent to the left on abortion, homosexuality, and just about everything else besides a promise to cut taxes,” Leary said. “It is why he hopped states yet again to run for the Senate in 2018.” In Romney’s eyes, he is “the one man standing in the breach, the paragon of virtue at the end of the republic.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • Kudos to Romney for stepping down at a normal time when other senators should, too. 
  • We’ll be worse off, losing a moderate in Congress who was willing to work across party lines.
  • That being said, he is everything that people say he is — good and bad.

It shouldn't be a major story when a 76-year-old senator steps down after decades in politics, but given the current state of our politics it obviously is.

Kudos to Romney. What he said was simple, to the point, and honest. It's something more politicians should say: I served, I'm of the retirement age, and it's time to make way for the next generation of leaders. It shouldn’t be that hard, especially for politicians like him. He's healthy, he's a millionaire, he owns homes in Utah and New Hampshire, he has five kids and 25 grandchildren — why stick around for the Biden-Trump Wars 2.0 when you could live out the remainder of your life with all that?

As a mile marker of this political moment, Romney is a fascinating person to consider. He represents so much that was condemnable about the old Republican Party and so much that was laudable about it, too.

He is a political chameleon, changing color depending on his audience, moving freely between political positions when the time is right. He is a classic flip-flopper. Matt Taibbi once summarized his critics as calling him a "cardboard opportunist who'll say anything to get elected," which was spot on. At Bain Capital, he helped lead a private equity firm that performed the kind of buyouts and mass layoffs to maximize shareholder profits that made private equity so loathed. He made his career by borrowing money from others and leaving them with the bill. He was, in many ways, precisely the kind of politician that made many voters so resentful of Washington D.C. that they turned to anti-establishment figures like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders.

But, as he showed as a senator, he also represents so much about the old GOP that is worth preserving. He is willing to live in dissent, disagreeing openly with his own party’s leadership or even president. He is pragmatic, willing to work across party lines as one of the few remaining moderates in the Senate, and he genuinely pursues fiscal responsibility. He adores traditions and norms, the real glue of Congress (and our nation) in this vast world of unwritten law. He is a Constitution-first politician, more interested in the law than social media clout or Twitter dunks. He doesn’t act like a celebrity or pundit or a social media influencer in Congress, as so many politicians do today. Agree or disagree with him, he has genuinely been trying to get things done, and is willing to find allies from any corner to get there.

With his Senate days waning, it appears Romney is going to go out in a blaze of glory, and the tell-all biography we got a taste of earlier this month has the whiff of a must-read. He is already dishing on all the things he claims Republicans refuse to acknowledge publicly ("He's an idiot," Romney purports McConnell said of Trump; some Republicans were scared to vote for impeachment because they feared for their lives, he claimed; new GOP senators like Ohio's J.D. Vance are simply playing a part, etc.), and I'll certainly be curious to see what his post-Senate confessionals look like.

For now, Romney is stepping away from an increasingly polarized and divided Senate, one where moderate politicians like him seem to be having a harder and harder go of it. On the simple math of "how many senators are willing to criticize their own party" and "how many senators are willing to work across the aisle," we'll be worse off without him. Romney is a flip-flopping political opportunist who happily sold out Americans to make his fortune and eagerly jumped states to climb the political rungs. But he's also one of the few politicians left genuinely enamored with tradition, willing to speak his mind, and unafraid of upsetting his party's base. When push came to shove, he spent his final years in office doing and saying what he actually thought was right.

The truth is, most everything you read about Romney — from his critics and allies — is true. I’m both glad he served in the Senate, and glad he’s retiring. He chose the right time for both. 

Your questions, answered.

Q: I have heard that the big media story about mass graves in Canada containing indigenous children had turned out to be not proven. Is this another case of the media rushing to preconceived ideas? Can you look into this?

— Tony from Missouri

Tangle: One of the biggest stories in 2021 was the discovery of what the New York Times described as a “mass grave of indigenous children” at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada, saying that 215 children of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation were buried on school grounds. The Canadian Press called the discovery of unmarked mass burial sites of indigenous children the story of the year, as other sites have been found across Canada.

However, nearly two years later, only two of the hundreds of discoveries have been confirmed. Further, some attempts to recover the remains of indigenous children suspected of being at other schools have turned out to be unmarked graveyards or false positives. “This is the biggest fake news story in Canadian history,” Tom Flanagan, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary, told The New York Post. “All this about unmarked graves and missing children triggered a moral panic. They have come to believe things for which there is no evidence and it’s taken on a life of its own.”

Both the Times and Flanagan are wrong.

First off, there’s truly no way around it: The initial reporting from The New York Times, and elsewhere, was factually incorrect. Researchers surveyed the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) technology, which can detect anomalies deep in the soil that indicate potential human remains, as the initial reporting of this story described. Those anomalies are suspected to be buried bodies, but physical remains have yet to be discovered at Kamloops. However, the CBC’s initial report clumsily conflated the GPR findings as the “remains of 215 children buried at the site,” and an article published by the Times is still online claiming human remains were discovered.

Secondly, this whole story isn’t exactly fake news “for which there is no evidence,” as Flanagan told the Post. The GPR findings aren’t conclusive, but they are at least evidentiary. There is also a long, undeniable, and sordid history of forced relocation and assimilation programs of First Nations children in Canada — a history that many Canadians were cognizant of when reacting to this story with a shared sense of grief. As Jonathan Kay wrote in an excellent and thorough piece in Quillette, “No one disputes that many students were subject to cruel (and sometimes even predatory) treatment and substandard medical care. Certainly, the death rate for Indigenous children attending these schools was much higher than that for children in the general population.”

Reporting from 2021 was misleading, conflating “preliminary findings” of anomalies with “the remains of more than 1,000 people.” The coverage definitely indicated confirmation bias, or what Kay called “the herd behaviour of Canada’s intellectual class.” But that overzealousness also sparked an opposing overzealous reaction of broad denialism that Canadian First Nations experienced systematic abuse at all. 

Here’s the upshot: We know that terrible, dehumanizing things took place at these schools, but we can’t be certain that these preliminary GPR findings are of mass graves. There have been a lot of GPR-detected anomalies found near Indian Relocation Schools, but we don’t know yet what those anomalies actually indicate.

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Under the radar.

On September 6, a missile strike in eastern Ukraine went down as one of the deadliest in months — killing at least 15 civilians and injuring more than 30 others. President Volodymyr Zelensky and many U.S. media outlets pinned the strike on Russia. But a new analysis of missile fragments, satellite imagery, witness accounts, and social media posts from The New York Times strongly suggests the deadly strike was an errant missile launched by Ukraine that accidentally landed in the heavily populated market. "The attack appears to have been a tragic mishap," The Times reports. A spokesman for Ukraine's armed forces says it is investigating the incident but can't comment further. The New York Times has the story.


  • 40%. Mitt Romney's job approval among Utah Republicans in May, according to Deseret News.
  • 56%. Mitt Romney's job approval among Utah Republicans in August, according to Deseret News.
  • 54%. The percentage of all Utah voters who said they strongly or somewhat approve of Romney's performance, according to an August poll.
  • $174 million. Romney's estimated net worth, as of 2018.
  • 7th. Romney's wealth ranking among members of Congress, according to a 2021 report.
  • 6 of 17. Of the Republicans who voted to impeach or convict Donald Trump, the number who are still in Congress, including Mitt Romney.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about the migrants arriving at Martha's Vineyard.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was our Friday edition in defense of Ashton Kutcher.
  • Reasonable strike, unreasonable demands: 744 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking about the United Auto Workers strike, with 33% saying they "fully support" the strike. 26% said they had a "mixed response" to the strike, 25% "mostly support" it, 10% "mostly oppose" it, and 6% "fully oppose" it. "Do the workers deserve a large raise? Absolutely. Are the CEOs grossly overpaid? Absolutely. Are the demands reasonable? Absolutely not," one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: 3D-printed vegan salmon.
  • Take the poll. What do you think of Mitt Romney's retirement? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

The World Health Organization estimates that 10 million people across the globe are infected by tuberculosis every year, and despite the existence of life-saving technology and medicine, 1.6 million still die of the airborne illness annually. These are facts that motivated the author and philanthropist John Green to get involved. “It’s the deadliest disease in human history, but for most of human history we couldn’t do much about it. However, since the mid-1950s, TB has been curable — yet we still allow TB to kill over 1.6 million people per year,” Green said. “This is horrifying to me.” Green and his group of ‘nerdfighters’ have already been successful in getting Johnson & Johnson to share its patent on the TB drug bedaquiline, and is now pressuring manufacturers of TB testing devices to make their products cheaper and more accessible. Good Good Good has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.