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How Mitt Romney Found His Own Footing—and Then the Door

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Almost a decade ago, many in Washington were trading some version of the same text message to each other as they watched a 90-minute documentary called simply Mitt: Where the heck was this Mitt Romney when he ran?

It was an entirely fair question. Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns were confounding, contradictory, and ultimately calamitous exercises in misreading both a candidate’s true self and the electorate’s tolerance for perceived inauthenticity. Although almost 61 million Americans voted for Romney as the GOP nominee in 2012, that left him with 47% of the popular vote and just 206 of the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the biggest prize in American politics.

While Romney dutifully defended his advisers and accepted the blame for his and his campaign’s errors, he also had in his back pocket all of the footage collected by a documentary crew of both of his short-in-the-end efforts. The resulting Mitt showed a goofy grandfather, a decidedly decent man, and an earnest pol who just wanted to help his country, dating back to his first try for the Senate in 1994. The film introduced Americans to an infinitely more likable and relatable figure, qualities that maybe shouldn’t matter when picking a national CEO but they do. But the image correction was a beat too late, being created with the understanding between Romney and the filmmaker, Greg Whiteley, that it would never see the light of day until he was done running for—or being—President.

Well, by 2014, that seemed entirely likely. Romney conceded his 2012 loss and seemed ready to return to private life. After six years—more, if you count his turn lining up friendships with donors as the head of the Republican Governors Association while leading Massachusetts—of trying to get to the White House, it seemed Citizen Mitt was going to have his deserved retirement and do things going forward without fear of what a stumble even in private could do for his legacy.

In the film, even Romney acknowledged the toll taken by his reputation as "the flippin' Mormon” during his White House runs. Gone was, in his words, a quixotic question to unfix the public’s mind: “You’re not going to convince them that Dan Quayle is smart, or that Jerry Ford isn’t a stumblebum. And it may be that I’ve got to live with that. ‘Oh, you flip on everything.’ In which case, I think I’m a flawed candidate.”

Then, a curious thing happened. Donald Trump started to climb in the polls and heading toward the 2016 nomination, and Romney didn’t much like what he saw. He spoke out against the radicalization of his fellow Republicans and gave an early warning against the path they were on. Romney was never again going to run for anything and could unload his real thoughts.

Two years later, he used his continued critique of Trump to win a Senate seat from Utah, becoming the first person since Sam Houston to serve as Governor of one state and a Senator from another. It was an unexpected return for someone who had for so long seemed stymied by his inability to stop running the risk-reward tables in his head. But Romney now had the luxury of having won a Senate seat with 71% of the primary vote and 63% of the general election balloting. Romney was in deep-red Utah, a state that Trump carried in 2016 with just 46% of the vote.

Then, something even more curious happened: the same Democrats who spent close to $100 million in outside money to bury his 2012 presidential dreams suddenly found themselves cheering him on. The same Establishment Republicans who found him a phony in 2008—”Who let the dogs out?” comes to mind—and insufferable in 2012 suddenly had someone who was willing to say what they were all thinking about Trump. Romney was the lone Republican to vote for conviction during Trump’s first impeachment trial, became an important negotiator for deals with Joe Biden’s White House, and stood-in as a moral core for what conservatism could ideally stand for and against.

Here, it seemed, was an entirely reasonable Republican, someone not bewitched by Trumpism or unbowed by the mean tweets. Unmoored to his political ambition, Romney could be as authentic as he wanted to be. During the White House campaigns, he was dogged by his record: yes, he passed a forerunner to Obamacare; he changed his position on abortion rights; his foreign policy proved fungible at times.

In the Senate, that didn’t much matter. After voting against Biden’s nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to a seat on the D.C. federal appeals court, he later reversed himself and joined those who voted her onto the Supreme Court. Romney could do what he saw as the right thing, even when it put him afield of the present Republican Party and even his own voting record. He no longer feared the flip-flopped label.

But in embracing Romney, D.C.’s elite proved their equally audacious inconsistency. The man they pilloried was now a hero, the candidate they crushed came back as a Lazareth deserving a second life. (In this analogy, of course, the same Washington insiders double as a deity here.) No one seemed to mind that Romney’s once-dogmatic fear of what the folks at the conservative think tanks might be saying about him had melted to admirable compromise. It was impossible to despise someone who spent hours huddled over draft legislation that ultimately gave Democrats major wins in exchange for concessions sought by mainstream Republicans in the bipartisan infrastructure bill—even if Romney was unbending in his opposition to a big spend on mass transit. And, once they got to know Romney as more than the guy who once strapped a kenneled family dog to the roof of the station wagon, they actually found they could do business with someone who sees the balance sheet as a solid barometer.

So when Romney announced on Wednesday that he would finish his current term in the Senate but open the door for someone else come 2025, those same voices who had in the past mocked the predictably had nothing but praise for their future former colleague. Fawning tributes poured in and it was as if Henry Clay himself were taking a final tour. It was the height of insta-amnesia, convenient if hackneyed.

Ultimately, it may not matter what those voices think or say. In the end, Romney found comfort in his own skin, confidence in his own character. The skittishness was gone, but so was his belief that he alone could fix what ails this country or even his own party. Finally recognized as the fair-minded patriarch of one of the great families in the Mormon faith, he can head to spend time with his five sons and their children. In leaning into the Romney that the country belatedly met in Mitt, he finally got to Washington—decades after his first try—as his true self. In embracing Romney, much of Washington also revealed their true fickle selves.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.