Last Friday, the JFK Library Foundation announced on the "TODAY" show that it was presenting Sen. Willard Mitt Romney, R-Utah, with this year's John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award. The former Massachusetts governor earned the award for his vote to convict President Donald Trump in his first impeachment trial. Romney was the only Republican to do so, becoming the first senator in history to vote to convict a president of his own party.
Pause for a second to take this in. The Kennedys are still considered political royalty in Massachusetts, even if former Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., failed in his recent bid to win a Senate seat like his great-uncles John and Teddy did. And here the family is giving huge props to a person who challenged Ted Kennedy for his Senate seat and lost back in 1994.
Thinking through Romney's the political arc, has anyone gone through such a wildly positive transformation as he has in these last 10 years? Since 2012, Romney's reputation among Democrats has gone from the plutocratic embodiment of everything that's wrong with the GOP to the Republican Party's moral center, the one conservative willing to do what's right.
The evidence goes beyond the Kennedy award. In an Axios-Ipsos poll taken in the days after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Romney was viewed favorably by only about a third of Republicans nationwide. In contrast, 62 percent of Democrats surveyed approved of his recent behavior.
Again, this is someone who was viewed as the absolutely perfect target for the Obama re-election campaign in 2012, which hammered him as being out of touch and representing the business class over the working man. Romney lost so badly that in the years after, he was basically a non-entity. The 2014 documentary "Mitt" and his charity boxing match with former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield were among the only reminders of his existence until he ran for the Senate.
So how to account for this sea change for the unconventional Utahan? I honestly think that it comes down to the country's — and his party's — shifting, not Romney. The GOP writ large has become less interested in governing than it has in owning the libs. Meanwhile, he's still the same person who as governor passed "Romneycare," which went on to become a template for the Affordable Care Act — with a beaming Ted Kennedy at his side as he signed it into state law. He's also the same person who remains mostly uninterested in the culture wars that the rest of his party thrives on. (I, for one, have never heard Romney issue the words "cancel culture" and would like it to stay that way.)
I'm glad that Romney is working the juice he has now to push for bipartisan deals that help Americans, unlike some of his colleagues, who clutter my inbox with piecemeal bits of proposed legislation that are more about posturing than anything else. Romney's proposal to provide families with monthly cash benefits of $250 to $350 per child is worth consideration, for example. And he's one of the few moderates in his party willing to at least give working with the Democratic majority a try.
But it feels at the same time as if the bar has been lowered substantially in the process. I long for a world where the Romneys of the Republican Party feel average, not like aberrations. His vote to convict Trump last year, which earned him the Profile in Courage award, was common sense given both the evidence at the time and the chaos that followed his party's decision to leave Trump in office.
When asked whether he stands by that vote, Romney said: "Absolutely. I mean, I sleep well, because I know that I did what my conscience told me was the right thing to do." If only more members of his party could do the same.