How a Romney presidency – which was set up to succeed – could have changed our current political climate

We’ve all heard of the Butterfly Effect: the idea that if you traveled back in time and killed a butterfly the present would be unrecognizable. I think it would take something more significant to alter the course of history, but the theory gets its point across and makes you think. The what-if game usually escalates, as it did when I played the other day and began imagining a world in which we elected a different president.

I wasn’t thinking about 2000 or 2016 or even 2020. I thought about 2012 and all the ways a Mitt Romney presidency would have delayed the surfacing of right-wing extremism that threatens our democracy today.

Indeed, this dominant strand that culminated in a terrorist attack on the Capitol could have been suppressed for decades given the perception of a successful first term, one that would have served to entrench Republican leadership. And a Romney administration would have been set up for success, thanks to President Obama’s tough decisions that prevented a depression and set the economic recovery in motion. It’s easy to imagine how Romney would have surfed a tide of good fortune from 2013 to his re-election.

Let’s start with the ACA. Approval for Obama’s signature law soared once it was under threat in 2017, as public backlash doomed the Republicans’ effort to rip healthcare away from millions. One of the main organizing principles of GOP opposition in the Obama era – the promise to repeal and replace the ACA – was exposed as a lie once they were in a position to govern. They never had a workable solution, let alone a better one.

It stands to reason that the same process would have played out in 2013, the bad-faith criticism revelead four years earlier. But unlike Trump, Romney would have had the competence to make a minor tweak to the existing law and re-write the narrative. The Right could then have cast any change as a consequential fix to the system, renaming it Romneycare. And given Romney’s credibility on healthcare — after all, he passed the state-level model as governor of Massachusetts — he could believably take credit for reforming one-sixth of the American economy.

The overall economy, too, would have continued to climb after the 2009 Recovery Act, a bill that was meticulously constructed amid the many crises Obama inherited. In fact, the economy might have grown faster when you consider the congressional makeup. In this parallel universe, the Republican House approves billions in new spending — the GOP never actually cared about the deficit — and the Democratic Senate advances the bill given the party’s goals and expectations. Democrats are elected on ideas, held to a standard of governing; the GOP wins on culture wars, unburdened by any real standard in office beyond fealty to a cult leader who represents white identity. The asymmetrical dynamic gives Republicans an inherent political edge.

Romney would have also seen a job spike falsely attributed to his own actions. Fulfilling GOP orthodoxy and the central promise of his candidacy, he would have cut taxes on corporations despite the fact that the U.S. was adding an average of 192,000 jobs a month in 2013 (250,000 in 2014.) These impressive gains would continue in spite of terrible policy, one that begets inequality and strangles the middle class over time. But the timing of the recovery would have lent his main agenda item the veneer of success. So not only would Romney benefit from Obama’s lasting investments, but he’d also reap the reward of continued job growth in the short term.

Then there’s the matter of character. Romney is a statesman, respectful of social norms if oblivious to real struggles. For all of his blindspots born of privilege, he values common decency. He would have carried himself with dignity. It’s a component of leadership that many of us once took for granted. But now, after witnessing the horrors of Trump and the rot he unleashed, we recognize basic class as an admirable trait (yet another attribute of leadership that strengthens Obama’s legacy.) Romney, in other words, would have done “conservatism” proud. And as a country club Republican, he would have escaped linkage with the darker current that propels the conservative movement — including his own presidency — yet calmed its fundamental fears all the same through his mere presence as a rightful president in their eyes.

Lastly, consider the nature of a Democratic Congress and the media landscape. The former would have cooperated with Romney. Not only would Democrats have worked with him on certain policies, as they proved with Trump on COVID relief or with Republicans on the Jan. 6 commission, but they would have respected decorum. Unlike Republicans, Democrats wouldn’t trash a normal president while abroad or compare him unfavorably to a dictator — norm-breaking attacks that the GOP and its propaganda waged on Obama, before it embraced a man who really did praise dictators. (As always, the Right’s hysteria and fantasies are forms of projection.)

To that end, Fox News and AM Radio would not have turned their base into extremists. There’d be no need. Without Obama, they wouldn’t have spent the next four years demonizing immigrants, twisting his record and words, and amplifying every culture war as if it were tied to the government, framing any turn of national events as validation of their grievances. The conservative media machine, in short, would not have built an angry cult rooted in white identity and victimhood, fearful of losing influence in a multicultural nation.

Thus, Trumpism would not have been activated (for now) as an ideology. His would-be supporters would exist, of course, but they wouldn’t have succumbed to their worst instincts without the nudge of propaganda and the frustration at Obama’s stature as president. Romney would have represented a restoring of order, a privileged white man returning to his rightful place as leader of the free world. His presidency would have acted as water on the simmering flame of grievance, a flame that would have burst into an inferno had the nation re-elected an illegitimate American.

If Romney had won, the MAGA base of today wouldn’t have sought revenge against immigrants, elite society — academia, expertise, the media, the coasts — and, most of all, at “failed Republicans” who let this happen. They wouldn’t have run into the arms of an “outsider,” one in the form of a racist carnival barker who not only channeled their rage and paranoia but also wasn’t at fault like the rest of the weakling Republicans for losing to Obama over and over. Weaklings, in their eyes, like … Mitt Romney.