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A Spineless Tennessee Republican’s Shiv

Desperate for MAGA approval, Bill Hagerty doesn’t want you to know that he LOOOVVVEED Mitt Romney.
August 6, 2020
A Spineless Tennessee Republican’s Shiv
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) talks with US Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty as he arrives in Osaka on June 27, 2019, ahead of the G20 summit. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Today, Bill Hagerty awaits the verdict of Tennessee voters following a contentious primary campaign for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Senator Lamar Alexander. In 2019, as Hagerty was weighing a bid for this seat in the world’s most annoying deliberative body, he went to see an old friend for advice about the race—Mitt Romney.

The fact that Hagerty would lean on Romney wouldn’t have come as a surprise to the Utah senator.

The two had first met, and become friends, as young consultants when Hagerty began his career at Boston Consulting Group—just as Romney, a dozen years his senior, had. Going back as far as 1987, Hagerty recognized that his friend had the necessary leadership traits “in his DNA” to be president. In 2006, it was Bill Hagerty who went with a group of other consultants to the one-term moderate Massachusetts governor and encouraged him to enter the presidential race against bigger names, including potentially Hagerty’s fellow Tennessean Fred Thompson. When Romney decided to run, Hagerty became one of the “O.G.” supporters of his campaign.

So when Hagerty came calling in 2019, it made sense that Romney both encouraged him to run for the Senate and provided the same early support that Hagerty had entrusted in him, shipping a $5,600 dollar check to his campaign.

A check Hagerty promptly deposited.

And then, in violation of campaign finance law, didn’t file with the FEC, preventing the public from seeing it.

What happened?

It turns out that sometime after asking Romney for his counsel and taking his money, Bill Hagerty had a Saul-to-Damascus conversion in reverse. He returned the money and began viciously attacking Romney’s character and his politics anytime it came up.

Where and when this roadside conversion happened remains opaque. But why it happened is clear as day. Hagerty had a new orange daddy. And daddy’s friends told little Billy that he and Willard couldn’t sit at the same lunchroom table anymore. They told him that Willard  is “despised” in Tennessee. They said that if Bill wanted to sit with the MAGA kids he’d have to dump the Mormon.

So he did. And he got to go to parties like this instead:


In order to be bestowed with the honor of appearing on the TRIGGERED podcast, Bill Hagerty had to torch his old friend. So he spent months smearing Romney, calling him a person who is “indistinguishable from Barack Obama” and saying he is just “bitter after his [2012] loss.” When Hagerty’s campaign was called out on the returned check by the New York Times, it issued a statement saying Hagerty returned the check because Romney is “a liberal.”

These were not the most convincing lines of attack, coming from Hagerty.

After all, it was Bill Hagerty who in 2006 encouraged an extremely squishy Massachusetts governor to run for president. . . . Yet in 2020 he thinks the same person—who if anything has veered to the right on policy issues in the ensuing years—is too “liberal”? Please.

In 2012 Bill Hagerty was one of Romney’s most enthusiastic supporters in his campaign against Barack Obama. He took unpaid leave from his job as the Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner to work on the Romney transition team. A fellow staffer told me that while working on the transition Hagerty’s “head was up Mitt’s ass as he begged to be secretary of treasury.” Yet in 2020, Mr. Rectumhead thinks that the person whom he desperately wanted to defeat President Obama is now “indistinguishable” from him? Because he walked in a Black Lives Matter protest?! (Seriously, that was the hit. Subtle.)

In 2016, Hagerty was an attendee at a gathering at the E2 conference that Romney hosted in Park City, Utah. There, according to attendees, he praised Mitt “lavishly” and “couldn’t have been more complimentary of Mitt or more gracious.” But in 2020, Hagerty wants you to believe he thinks Mitt is “bitter after his loss.” I guess the bitterness didn’t show itself while he was eating some amuse bouche.

It wasn’t just Hagerty: The team that he built for this Senate run includes people who had worked diligently to elect Romney president. Hagerty’s chief strategist, Ward Baker, was placed by Romney in a prominent role as the liaison between his presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee.

It is completely implausible to imagine that people with this background could truly believe the anti-Romney slander they are now peddling to win a primary. Does anyone really believe that Bill Hagerty, an accomplished businessman who had previously had an affinity for establishment Republicans, actually thinks that Donald Trump is a master negotiator who has “an ability to deal with and bring down simmering tensions sometimes,” as he said on Donald Trump Jr.’s podcast?

It is all preposterous on its face.

Unless spending time with Diamond and Silk and Donald Trump Jr. has resulted in the first known brain-worms contagion, the truth is painfully obvious: Bill Hagerty is so enamoured of the possibility of being a senator that he’s willing to utterly debase himself at the feet of Donald Trump and smear a loyal, long-time friend.

Which brings us to the most galling critique of Romney that Hagerty has made. In a speech at a luncheon in late July, following an onslaught of attacks from his equally phony MAGA cosplay opponent in the primaries, Hagerty contrasted himself with his old friend, saying “what we need in the U.S. Senate is backbone.”

Backbone, huh?

How much backbone would have been required for Hagerty to have said that while they disagree about President Trump’s impeachment, he knows Mitt is a person of character and integrity who wants what’s best for the country. That Mitt is a person he loves and respects but disagrees with on a few important matters.

Is that such a hard answer to give? Would that really have cost Hagerty the Tennessee Senate race? Are we sure about that? Was it maybe worth a shot?

Doing the minimum to stand up for a friend doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that requires much backbone. It’s the kind of lesson you teach a small child.

Smearing a good person because your consultants or your new friends said you had to do so in order to win an election isn’t backbone. It’s flaccidity. It’s cowardly.  It’s invertebrate.

Backbone is doing the unpopular thing because you believe in it.

Backbone is getting out of your comfort zone to stand against injustice.

Backbone is doing the right thing even when you suspect it might cause some of your oldest friends to shun you.

Bill Hagerty is right that the U.S. Senate could use more backbone.

The problem is his has gone limp.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.