fresh voices from the front lines of change







As a Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney should wear a warning label: “CAUTION: following changes in this candidate’s positions could cause whiplash and other injuries.” Seriously, you could hurt yourself trying keep up with the speed with which this guy changes his mind.

The only thing more stunning than Romney’s ideological agility and changeable convictions is that — contrary to what you might be inclined to think — Romney’s flip-flops aren’t quite the gaffes the appear to be. Neither, for that matter, are his convictions. They’re more tactics than convictions, really. Thus they change whenever necessary, and always in service of Romney’s real, bedrock conviction.

Digby already covered Romney’s latest flip-flop. It happened in a matter of days. Romney inveighed against President Obama’s “attack on religious conscience” during the last GOP debate, referring to the controversy ginned up in response to a mandate that all employer insurance plans — including religious institutions — cover contraception. After his Michigan primary win, Romney again accused the president of “attacking religious liberty,” over the issue of contraception. Then, within one twenty-four hour period Romney managed to put himself on both sides of the contraception debate.

Perhaps the question was poorly worded. Or perhaps it was a slip of a tired tongue.

Either way, Mitt Romney created a new tempest when he told an Ohio news station that he was opposed to a Senate amendment, favored by conservatives and under debate in Congress on Wednesday, that would allow employers and insurers to limit coverage of contraceptives if they have religious or moral objections.

“I’m not for the bill,” Mr. Romney said, but then added, “the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a women, husband and wife, I’m not going there.”

Mr. Romney seemed to be further distancing himself from the hard-edged social conservatism of his chief Republican rival, Rick Santorum, who has argued that contraception is damaging to society.

… The episode began when Mr. Romney was asked about his view of the sweeping amendment, sponsored by Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, that would permit employers and insurers to refuse to offer health coverage that violated their beliefs.

This, really, is only the most recent of Romney’s flip-flops. He’s managed to either flip or forget a number of his previous positions, like his support of an open primary in Michigan. (Before “Operation Hilarity,” that is.) He isn’t just running from RomneyCare, after all. Candidate Romney may denounce the Obama stimulus and tout his conservative cred, but as Governor Romney proposed more than $700 million in stimulus packages to turn around Massachusetts’ economy.

What’s stunning about this flip-flop is the speed with which it happened. But underscores the same thing as another of Romney’s ideological shifts.

To understand Mitt Romney, you have to understand the most difficult passage of his political life: how he changed his position on abortion. Not the story he tells about it, but the real story.

Romney began his political career as a pro-choicer. In the story he tells, he had an epiphany, a flash of insight, and committed himself thereafter to protecting life. But that isn’t what happened. The real story of Romney’s conversion—a series of tentative, equivocal, and confused shifts, accompanied by a constant rewriting of his past—paints a more accurate picture of who he is. Romney has complex views and a talent for framing them either way, depending on his audience. He values truth, so he makes sure there’s an element of it in everything he says. He can’t stand to break his promises, so he reinterprets them.

Parts of the story have been told before. But no one has put it together. And no one has assembled the many video and audio clips that bear witness to what happened. In this article, the first complete examination of Romney’s journey, you’ll see his transformation on camera. (You can also watch a video narration.)

When you see the story in its full context, three things become clear. First, this was no flip-flop. Romney is a man with many facets, groping his way through a series of fluid positions on an array of difficult issues. His journey isn’t complete. It never will be. Second, for Romney, abortion was never really a policy question. He didn’t want to change the law. What he wanted to change was his identity. And third, the malleability at Romney’s core is as much about his past as about his future. Again and again, he has struggled to make sense not just of what he should do, but of who he has been. The problem with Romney isn’t that he keeps changing his mind. The problem is that he keeps changing his story.

Romney may have said he’s not going to “set his hair on fire,” to excite the base. But his shift on contraception shows that he’s willing to cut off his roots to convince the base that he’s one of them.

The “religious liberty” Romney referred to was a newly discovered “constitutional right” to deny women access to contraceptives. The son of Lenore Romney, who ran for the Senate in 1970 as a reproductive rights champion, was not just abandoning positions he once said he learned from his mom. He was framing that abandonment as part of an embrace of the new GOP orthodoxy that says religious groups should define the national agenda on issues ranging from education to healthcare policy.

It was a far cry from the Mitt Romney of 2007, who in an attempt to echo John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech in favor of church-state separation (and to dispel wariness about his Mormonism as effectively as Kennedy did about his Catholicism), explained that “we separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason.” More and more, the formerly pro-choice social liberal has been sounding like Pat Robertson in 1988 or Gary Bauer in 2000, candidates who tried to rally the party’s evangelical base against more rational Republicans.

For Romney, there is no choice. The party he joined as a Massachusetts moderate has ceased to be. This is no longer the GOP of patricians like George Romney or even George H.W. Bush, or of Western individualists like Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan or even John McCain—all of whom maintained at least a measure of secularism in a party that has for decades been under assault by the likes of Phyllis Schlafly, Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed.

Except that Olympia Snowe’s example suggests that it is a choice. The Maine Republican’s announcement of her retirement from the Senate make her the latest moderate Republican to leave shaking her head over what’s become of the “party of Lincoln.” Tired of bending over backwards to mollify the extreme right, Snowe simply said “Enough,” and decided there was life beyond the Senate — and probably a much better life at that.

Romney has a choice, too. He’s fond of saying that, if elected, he will “go to Washington, change Washington, and then leave Washington.” (Probably to decamp to one of his six homes.) He just as easily do that now, rather than forge on through the GOP primaries, changing one position after another, in pursuit of the nomination of a party that still doesn’t seem to want him. As his ideological 180s become more and more transparent, that idea ought to look better and better.

But Romney knows what he’s doing. He means to do whatever it takes to win the nomination. So, he panders to the right because the right controls who ultimately gets the nomination. He’ll swallow as much poison as they demand, if he wants to be their nominee, even if it weakens him in the general election.

That’s why I say what look like flip-flops on basic conservative ideological positions are really just tactical changes in pursuit of a goal. Put another way, it’s all in service to Mitt Romney’s one unchangeable conviction.

If he weren’t so smug, it would almost be possible to feel sorry for Mitt Romney. Beyond the flip-flopping, has any worse actor ever attempted the role of presidential candidate? It’s beyond Romney’s powers to persuade most people of his sincerity about things he does believe, much less the many tenets of contemporary GOP faith he probably doesn’t share — assuming for the sake of argument that anybody, including himself, knows which is which.

There’s little doubt, however, that Romney believes he deserves to be president, in rather the way the fictional Lord Grantham deserves to preside over Downton Abbey. It’s his inability to conceal that sense of entitlement that makes him such an awkward politician.

It may not serve him in well that so his many flip-flops tend to lay bare the ambition and entitlement at the heart of Romney’s race for the White House. But at least we know Mitt Romney has at least one conviction of which he stands firm.

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