Elder Statesmen

Elder Statesmen

The two old men worried to their very cores about Trump came to opposite decisions: Mitt Romney quit, and Joe Biden is running again. Both may have chosen wrong.

Sen. Mitt Romney leaves the Senate Chamber during former President Donald Trump's impeachment trial on February 12, 2021. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Romney: A Reckoning
by McKay Coppins
Scribner, 2023, 416 pp.

The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future
by Franklin Foer
Penguin Press, 2023, 432 pp.


At Easter time in 2022, Craig Romney took his family to Washington, D.C., to see the sights. Craig’s father, Mitt Romney, the junior senator from Utah, joined them for a trip to the White House that Mitt had arranged. Joe and Jill Biden appeared mid-tour to show the guests around, patiently bringing them to the swimming pool and the bowling alley and letting everyone pose for pictures at the Steinway grand piano. As they departed, the youngest Romney grandchild offered his thoughts on the president: “I thought he would be less old.”

Through the decades, Joe Biden and Mitt Romney never knew each other well. Now, still in public life only because of another old man—the one they loathe to their very cores—the president who defeated Trump and the would-be president who has become Trump’s most prominent Republican opponent have acquired a mutual respect. One Sunday morning, Biden called Romney out of the blue, reaching him at church. “I just wanted to call and tell you that I admire your character and your personal honor,” Biden told Romney. “We disagree on a lot of things, but I think highly of you as a person.” Romney replied that he felt the same way.

These men are the subjects of two of the more interesting insider journalistic accounts of American politics published in 2023. In The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future, Franklin Foer offers a plodding blow-by-blow of Biden’s surprisingly successful first two years in office. In Romney: A Reckoning, McKay Coppins goes beyond the usual conventions of the genre to write a more revealing book about a less consequential politician. The perpetually underestimated Biden, after surpassing expectations in his first term, soldiers on toward an election he may lose as age catches up to him. Romney, four years younger, heads for the exits, full of harsh words for his party but still grappling with his own role in bringing the GOP to its present impasse.

The Last Politician is a long encomium to “the old hack who could.” Biden appears sharp and incisive, preening as ever but more comfortable in his own skin than the palpably insecure figure of decades past. Foer covers the spate of legislation Biden signed in the first years of his presidency, which sought both to address the exigencies of the moment and to move decisively beyond them. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) passed in March 2021, with no-strings-attached checks for individuals earning $75,000 a year or less and a commitment to full employment. The “fingertip politician” simultaneously moved left with his party and won bipartisan victories in the CHIPS and Science Act and the infrastructure bill. And after a year’s worth of drama, Biden finally got all fifty members of the Senate Democratic caucus behind the massive Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Also notable is Biden’s support for Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, whom he renominated in 2021 over criticism from his party’s left. Whatever criticisms one might make of individual Fed decisions, the United States has navigated the shoals of pandemic and inflation in better macroeconomic shape than almost all its peers.

Biden’s embrace of large-scale spending and economic planning represent a departure from all the other Democrats who have served as president during his fifty-year career in federal government. That fundamental reorientation, Foer argues, has come together with the pragmatism that has always been a Biden hallmark, whatever his faction.

Foer sees more than an impressive record under tough circumstances. Yet the administration’s breathless rhetoric about its successes, which he echoes, belies a more complex reality. The anti-monopolism at the heart of Elizabeth Warren’s agenda, for example, espoused by her many aides and acolytes now serving under Biden, sits uneasily with the public-private entanglements of the new industrial policy. Both of these goals are in tension with the administration’s increased support for organized labor—a genuine shift from the Obama years. And politically, Democrats’ notably successful 2022 midterm performance was powered by the Dobbs decision more than anything that Biden accomplished.

On the crucial questions of taxing and spending, Democrats’ recent record is thin. Extraordinary pandemic interventions like the one-year refundable Child Tax Credit in the ARP have all expired. The idea that temporary expansions in the welfare state would somehow create inexorable groundswells that would force them to become permanent lies in tatters. At one level, the blame goes to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—and not to Biden. But it also goes to the Democratic thinkers and staffers, who never coalesced behind a common vision for what mattered most in, as the pandemic-era phrase had it, the “care economy,” or, critically, how it would be paid for. The IRA capped the cost of insulin and let Medicare negotiate prices for ten common prescription drugs—important victories, but modest in comparison to the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, Biden’s red line on tax increases for those with incomes under $400,000 puts a hard limit on any grand plans for social transformation. The argument that Biden has moved the Democratic Party past neoliberalism, in other words, looks stronger for industrial policy than social policy, and for reasons that go beyond mere numbers. Like his fellow partisans, Biden is more comfortable shaping markets for a green future than in solving the vexed politics of revenue.

A former editor of the New Republic now working at the Atlantic, Foer is a bona fide member of official Washington’s liberal precincts. His goal is less to explain the capitol’s folkways than to show them in action. Jake Sullivan, the former Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton aide now serving as National Security Advisor, was clearly a key source for the book; his musings on how the limits of his bosses’ worldviews in 2016 helped elect Trump underpin Foer’s own assessment. But to understand just why the “ideological odyssey” of Sullivan and his peers has been so important would require more curtain-raising on the milieux of idea production than is Foer’s style. He prefers to let those in the know connect the narrative dots. Perhaps inevitably for a policy-heavy tome trying to cover so much ground, the book has a betwixt-and-between quality: it is a helpful panoptic survey, but it is neither particularly juicy about a low-scandal administration with few defining rivalries at the top, nor revelatory about any single policy or decision. Above all, The Last Politician takes the president’s substantive record seriously, but it elides the most pressing problem of the hour, which is whether a president so old and so unpopular is the best choice for another turn as democracy’s savior.

Romney: A Reckoning is a more interesting book than The Last Politician, one that plays to its author’s strength: penetrating his subjects’ minds and seeing the world through their eyes. A fellow Mormon, McKay Coppins drew out details from Romney in a yearlong series of searching conversations; he was also given access to Romney’s journal. The resulting portrait is what one review called “searing.” Coppins captures how dangerous Romney finds Trump and many of his followers, and he pushes Romney beyond his own explanations for how his party has reached this point.

The book’s first half marches through Romney’s early life, his career in management consulting and private equity, the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City (seemingly his only unalloyed triumph), an awkward term as Massachusetts governor that produced a landmark healthcare bill, and two presidential runs in which Romney moved right and did little to distance himself from the GOP’s fever swamps. Then Trump rides down the escalator, and everything somehow changes for Romney. As he tells Coppins,

This is a great challenge that I’ve faced, and that every Republican faces. You say, “Okay, I better get closer to this line, or maybe step a little bit over it. If I don’t, it’s going to be much worse, because this other [candidate] is really nuts. So in order to save our party and to save our country, I’ve got to go a little further over the line.” And the problem is that the line keeps on getting moved, and moved, and moved.

As in so many accounts of Never Trumpers, the signs of danger are all there, yet the protagonists ignore them for far too long. In Romney’s case, it meant failing to heed the example of his idolized father George, who denounced Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican convention. Romney tells Coppins that when Trump played the birther card, he did not see “a racial arc to it. And perhaps I’m not as sensitive to that as I should be.” But where so many others in his circles, after some fretting, ultimately made their peace with Trump, Romney never did. After dispensing with retirement and winning election as a senator for Utah in 2018, he was the only Republican who voted to convict the president in the first Trump impeachment trial.

Just why has Romney stood firm? His problem is less the substance of Trumpism than the character of the former president. For a smart man so long in the game, Romney emerges as someone with notably few political beliefs beyond a few bedrock conservative principles (flexible in their application)—above all, that personal piety undergirds public morality, and that business leaders should be free to run their companies. This rather prissy sense of rectitude proves a limited guide to political action. “Yes, I am a passionate competitor, and I will fight to win,” Romney ruminates in a journal entry from 2012. “But the nomination and the presidency are not themselves what drive and invigorate the campaigning—it’s the competition that does that. The nomination and the presidency are about the country, God, and the future for our descendants.” When he sees such a manifestly odious figure as Trump, he recoils. “What,” he asked in his diary late on the night of January 6, 2021, “is the weight of personal acclaim compared to the weight of conscience?”

Romney rereads the Federalist Papers and tells Coppins that politicians should think more about their places in history. But that is more or less where the introspection stops. Beyond a little daydreaming with Manchin, he never goes beyond starchy bromides to think institutionally, whether by organizing the Senate moderates with whom he has gathered in various “gangs” into some more formal grouping, or by imagining broader reforms to the system that brought us here—let alone by breaking with his party altogether. Consciously or not, Romney falls into the same individualistic trap that doomed his father long ago, thinking in terms of personalities alone and not the forces that propelled them. Now, that cycle will end. None of Romney’s five sons calls himself a Republican anymore.

It is also the end for Romney himself, who is not running for reelection in 2024. At one level, his choice reflects grim electoral realities. Utah has swung in relative terms against Trump, but not hard: John McCain won in 2008 by twenty-eight points, and Trump in 2020 by twenty points. A near-certain Republican primary in Utah against a Trump loyalist would be unwinnable. And even a general election with Romney running as an independent would be daunting. In 2022, Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer and Republican staffer turned Never Trumper, ran as an independent against Romney’s hard-right senior colleague, Mike Lee, in a race where the Democrats stood down; McMullin still lost by a double-digit margin. Romney would have formidable advantages McMullin did not, with a long record in public life and a hefty bank account of his own, not to mention those of his friends. Win or lose, it would have been a hell of a race.

In the end, the two old men worried to their very cores about Trump came to opposite decisions: Romney quit, and Biden is running again. Both may have chosen wrong. Romney looks at his aged colleagues, dependent on staff and too feeble to do the job, and rightly recoils. Yet he would be far from the oldest senator in January 2031. With Liz Cheney gone, his is the singular conservative anti-Trump voice in Congress. His worldview celebrates, to a fault, the individual of conscience who does the right thing. But Romney is slinking out, leaving his seat to be filled by yet another hard-right politician. One suspects his last great act in public life will be a Biden endorsement later this year.

As for the president, he remains strikingly unpopular for all his achievements. As of this writing he is behind Trump in most polls. Incumbents the world over have suffered from voters’ distemper amid post-pandemic inflation. They are quick to judge those responsible for what they deem bad performance, and ill-equipped to consider counterfactuals or comparisons. Biden would be in better shape if every swing voter read The Last Politician cover to cover. But they will not. And the president, who now disembarks from Air Force One from a rear exit with fewer steps, is not getting any younger.

Biden could have retired a champ, the man who vanquished Trump, saved democracy, waved the banner for labor, and turned the corner on climate. Another Democrat could fight the same fight—democracy and Dobbs, plus perennials like healthcare—without the baggage. But American parties cannot simply execute a quick leadership change like parliamentary parties elsewhere. A contested primary, especially in the shadow of the Gaza war, would not be pretty. Vice President Kamala Harris comes across in The Last Politician as uncertain and awkward, sensitive to criticism but not especially effective in the policy areas delegated to her. Other figures who would offer something like the Biden formula without the burden of inflation and the daily realities of old age—Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, for instance—seem appealing. But with no faction inside the Democratic Party broadly unhappy with Biden, serious rivals all kept to the sidelines once the president announced his intention to run again. And even if Biden scrapes by and wins in November, divided government is the likeliest outcome for the next term. It is hard to say that the risk of retirement exceeds the risk of running.

On the wall of Romney’s Senate office hangs a 1931 “histomap” from Rand McNally tracing the rise and fall of civilizations across four millennia. Staring at it, Romney saw “how thoroughly it was dominated by tyrants of some kind—pharaohs, emperors, kaisers, kings.” Like many of his sturdy formulations, it has more than a kernel of truth. Yet leadership alone will not vanquish tyrants. As Biden so well understands—even as he puts that very understanding at risk—it also takes politics.

Daniel Schlozman is Joseph and Bertha Bernstein Associate Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He is coauthor, with Sam Rosenfeld, of The Hollow Parties: The Many Pasts and Disordered Present of American Party Politics (Princeton, 2024).