Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 9, 2007
POLITICS: The Trouble With Mitt Romney (Part 3 of 5)
The third of a five-part series on why Republicans who are serious about winning the White House in 2008 are wasting our time on Mitt Romney. For background, check out Part 1, Part 2, my explanation of why I'm with Rudy, and my take on Mike Huckabee.
III. What, Precisely, Does This Man Stand For?
In Part III, we take on the issue that has dogged Mitt Romney throughout his campaign for the presidency: the charge that he is a flip-flopper. The fact that he has that reputation is itself damaging, as John Kerry could tell you; it's not as if the Democrats will not know how to make maximum use of it if Romney wins the nomination (I'd advise him to avoid windsurfing in the interim just to be safe). What I'd like to explain here is precisely why it is that the flip-flop label sticks so easily to Romney when it doesn't seem to attach to other politicians who have changed their positions now and again.
Let's start with an obvious point: all politicians flip-flop, hedge and straddle from time to time. Indeed, in a representative democracy, this is arguably a good thing. Let's consider an obvious point: what if a candidate for public office is exceptionally well-qualified for the job and has positions you agree with on a number of important matters, but disagrees on a point that is relatively small, yet important to you personally? Would you rather the politician change his position? Is that better than rejecting a good candidate over one minor issue, or alternatively electing someone who takes a stance that troubles you? For most of us, if we are honest, the answer is yes; we want to be represented by people who will do what we want them to do. Voters like flip-flops; they reward flip-flops, especially when a candidate is moving from a local to statewide, or statewide to national electorates. Even Ronald Reagan, who was probably the most politically principled politician to win the White House in memory, changed some of his positions when he ran successfully in 1980, the most direct example of which was when he dropped his advocacy of repealing the Davis-Bacon Act to appeal to union voters.
That said, however, voters also want leaders, people who announce their commitment to clear, principled positions and stick to them, even if it means having to try dragging the voters away from their current views. As I have written previously, in a representative democracy, it's not necessarily fatal to hire leaders who echo what we want them to say, rather than what they'd do if they had their druthers. Many of our individual druthers, after all, aren't so well thought-out. But what matters more than anything is not a politician's fealty to his own internal principles but his ability to publicly take a principled position and stick to it. What we look for in leaders, especially presidents, is that ability: the willingness to say, "here I stand," let the voters judge the merits of that stand, and keep faith with your promises, even when the going gets rough.
This is doubly important in the presidency, because of the president's unique role in foreign policy - courage and constancy are vital virtues, even when that sometimes means not giving us what we want. Many voters in 2004 were closer in their own hearts to Kerry's studied ambivalence about Iraq than to Bush's stubborn commitment, but they respected Bush's leadership, and rewarded him with another term to carry on the job.
Put simply: flip-flops buy votes, but do so at an escalating cost to a politician's credibility. First, they erode a candidate's reputation as a leader; then, in time, they come to cast doubt even on the candidate's announced positions, creating fear that he will hold them only until a better offer comes along. Voters may not mind if you sold somebody else out to get their vote, but they will not vote for you if they expect you to sell them out as soon as he comes under fire. Which brings us to the four ways in which Romney's flip-flops have extracted a particularly high cost to his credibility, which can't be readily recovered in time for the 2008 election.
The first problem with Romney's vulnerability to the flip-flop charge is simply that there are so many examples floating around of Romney changing his tune. Abortion is only the most notorious example. I'll pick over a few here and link to other, more detailed treatments of the issue. I can't vouch 100% for each source cited here, but the cumulative effect is pretty damning.
Ben Domenech has gone into detail here and here about the collision between Romney's 2006 claim, while running as a committed pro-lifer, that he "never called myself pro-choice" and his 2002 position, which included declaring that "If the question is whether I will protect and defend a woman's right to choose, my answer is an unequivocal 'Yes,'" vowing that "I respect and will fully protect a woman's right to choose." and sending his running mate out to declare that abortion should be a non-issue in 2002 because "[t]here isn't a dime of difference between Mitt Romney's position on choice and [NARAL-endorsed] Shannon O'Brien". He even filled out Planned Parenthood and NARAL questionnaires in 2002 pledging to uphold Roe v Wade and support public funding for abortion.
Romney also appeared to change his position on stem cell research between 2002 and 2005, shifting from statements that appeared to suggest a broad, unqualified support to a more nuanced position that supported the destruction of IVF embryos but opposed cloning. But it's arguable that that's more a matter of coming out with a clearer position on an issue he had fudged in the past than actually altering his position.
Leon Wolf has covered Mitt's immigration flip-flop in some detail. Romney initially supported, and then later became a vocal foe of, the Bush/McCain-Kennedy approach to comprehensive immigration reform. (More here). As I noted in the last installment, he also never did squat about sanctuary cities in Massachusetts, an issue about which he now professes to be deeply offended to the point of calling for federal funding to be cut off to coerce such cities to drop their policies.
Alphecca has a look at Romney's shifts on gun control, having supported the assault weapons ban and Brady Bill in the past and gone from saying "I don't line up with the NRA" to becoming a card-carrying member. Mitt has changed his tune significantly on guns. (More here).
4. The Bush Tax Cuts
Romney's shift on taxes is perhaps more a matter of political strategy than a genuine alteration of his positions. Romney now campaigns in favor of making the Bush tax cuts permanent, but as recently as 2003, during the battle in Congress for the larger part of those cuts, he pointedly refused to support them - sending his press secretary out to say that he would not be taking a position on the issue - and signalled that he was open to supporting a federal gas tax hike, with both positions earning praise from Barney Frank.
One related issue that deserves a little discussion here as well is the minimum wage. Romney has been accused more than a few times by left and right alike (see here and here) of flip-flopping on the minimum wage, especially after he campaigned on a promise to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts and then vetoed a bill to do just that in 2006. Romney does, however, appear to have been genuinely consistent from 1994 through 2007 in arguing that the minimum wage should be indexed to inflation to provide for annual increases, a position consistent with his veto of an increase from $6.75 to $8/hour and counter-proposal of $7/hour. Romney's position is anything but friendly to business and economic growth, but he has been consistent.
5. Campaign Finance Reform
In 1994, Romney was for a variety of campaign finance reforms (go to about 1:25 in this video), including spending limits, abolishing PACs, and gift limits:
Now, he's posing as a champion of free speech, penning op-eds against McCain-Feingold and cheering the Supreme Court for its WRTL decision striking in part a McCain-Feingold issue ad ban.
"MY FEAR," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said at the Republican debate this month, "is that McCain-Kennedy would do to immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money in politics, and that's bad." Mr. Romney has turned campaign finance reform into one of his stump villains -- which represents a dramatic . . . turnabout from his days running for office in Massachusetts.
The Hill reports that in 2002 Mitt Romney advocated radical campaign finance reform:
6. Other Issues
I'm not going to wade here - for time and space reasons - into the extent to which Romney's metamorphosis from claiming to be more gay-friendly than Ted Kennedy to battling against same-sex marriage represents a comprehensive change in opinion as opposed to a shift in tone in response to a new issue environment (Mitt has been consistently in favor of civil unions/domestic partnerships, and consistently opposed to same-sex marriage). If you want to examine the Romney record on those and other issues more broadly, Jim Geraghty walks through some key examples as well, including Romney's 1994 efforts to distance himself from the "Reagan-Bush" GOP. And consider the exhaustive laundry list compiled by Brian Camenker, a long-time Massachusetts conservative critic of Romney. Camenker is obviously a guy with an axe to grind and somewhat obsessed with gay rights issues (more on him here and the Romney camp's response to him here, including the necessary admission "FACT: Governor Romney Has Said He Has Been Wrong On Some Issues In The Past And Is Not Embarrassed To Admit It"). From the left side of the GOP spectrum, the Log Cabin Republicans have compiled a similar list covering much of the same ground. More here. Just to give a couple additional examples:
None of this is to suggest that Romney is alone in shifting his positions - indeed, on each of the major issues above Romney has some company in the GOP field (Rudy and Huckabee on immigration, McCain on the Bush tax cuts, Fred on campaign finance reform, etc.). But the breadth of his portfolio of flip-flops is staggering.
A second problem, even beyond the sheer volume of Romney's shifts, is how quickly some of them have come. In a long career in public life, it's to be understood that some genuine changes of heart will come to almost anyone. A number of presidential candidates have run after abandoning or modifying long-ago positions on abortion (Bush and Gore in the 70s, Reagan in the 60s), just to pick a prominent example. Some even switched parties over time.
But a perusal of the record of Romney flip-flops includes a distressing number of examples of things he did and said as recently as the 2002 campaign, the 2003 Bush tax cut fight, his 2005 position on abortion, and 2006 statements on immigration, as well as conservative positions he took for the first time in 2006 or 2007. For a man with such limited experience in public office, the most charitable thing you can say is that he is learning as he goes along - hardly an endorsement of the man as being ready for prime time as leader of his party and leader of the Free World.
This can be intimately tied to the problems of frequency and recency, but in Romney's case it's a particular sore spot with his abortion flip-flop. If a politician expects people to believe that his change of heart on an issue was at least in part something other than naked political expediency, he needs to offer some sort of plausible justification for the change. George W. Bush, for example, ran as essentially a pro-choicer for Congress in 1978; when he ran again as a pro-lifer for Texas Governor in 1994, 16 years had passed, and Bush had undergone a life-changing religious awakening and quit drinking. Whether or not people believed that politics played a role in the initial or later positions or the change, the relevant point is that there were legitimate and plausible reasons to think that by 1994, the position he took was the one he really believed in.
In Romney's case, he not only hasn't provided a plausible explanation for several of his shifts, he has (1) tried at times to deny his prior positions and (2) provided explanations for his changes of heart that strain credulity to the breaking point.
Leon has been through this before on the abortion issue: it's not just that Mitt says he changed his mind on abortion, or that he tells us what sounds, at first, like a plausible story of having thought through the issue seriously for the first time during the stem cell debate:
Romney said the turning point for him on abortion came when he was looking at the issue of stem cells. In the past, Romney has supported limited government funding for stem-cell research. But Romney said he found stem-cell researchers casually cloning and farming embryos in Orwellian labs.
Yet, Romney peddled an equally plausible story in 1994 of what made him a pro-choicer; I'll excerpt the most damning parts of Leon's piece:
On abortion rights, Kennedy took the offensive. Recounting his sponsorship of the Freedom of Choice Act and the clinic access law, Kennedy said: "I am pro- choice, my opponent is multiple choice."
[H]e "opened a window on his personal life, saying that his pro-choice stand developed because a member of his family had died after an illegal abortion." He said that the woman was "my brother-in-law's sister and a very close family hriend," who died in the '60s, when Romney would have been in his teens and early 20s. Romney, on his abortion position at the time: "I hadn't thought about it much." He added that the relative's death "obviously makes one see that regardless of one's beliefs about choice that you would hope it would be safe and legal."
I just don't know how you can read both sets of conversions and consider Romney's account remotely plausible. St. Paul only went to Damascus the one time.
Guns is another example of Romney's efforts straining credulity: Romney sought to gloss over the pro-gun-control elements of his record by boldly declaring, "I've been a hunter pretty much all my life," but had to back down when further investigation turned up nothing resembling a history of hunting. (More here). (I'll go next time in more detail into why this episode bothered me particularly).
And yet, rather than take the Rudy or McCain approaches of acknowledging himself as a less than orthodox member of a conservative party, Romney has had the effrontery to pass himself off as the principled conservative in the race, saying on national TV that besides abortion, "on other issues, my positions have been very consistent with my principles and my views" and declaring that "I do speak for the Republican wing of the Republican Party."
All of this might be forgivable in a politician who was laboring to avoid having minor issues derail an otherwise strong case for his election, or who was running mainly on a long and distinguished record as opposed to an issue-driven campaign. But the really fatal thing, the thing that more than any other single factor makes me leery of Romney, is that he has shifted positions on issues that he now promotes as being central to his appeal.
If you look at the other major GOP contenders, what you see is candidates with a core of issues that represent their basic reason for being in public life. Rudy started off fighting crime, welfare and the other scourges of big-city liberalism, and after September 11 has been a man on a mission to get back at the Islamist extremists who attacked his city. Fred is a long-time believer in federalism, trying to revive the principles of the 1994 GOP wave that brought him to public office. McCain is first and foremost a patriot and a warrior, a man who stood for his warrior's code even under torture and imprisonment. Huckabee is a former Baptist minister who sells himself as the champion of rural, Christian values. In each case, the pitch works to some extent because there is a lifetime of experience behind it that enables each candidate to say: this is who I am, judge me by the miles I have walked.
What Mitt lacks is that same identifiable core that says "this is why I'm running; these are the things that are really important to me." In fact, if anything he has been placing very heavy emphasis on his social conservatism and hard-line position on immigration - the very issues on which he has flipped most dramatically. The others may be mistrusted by various groups of conservatives, but at least on their core issues, we know Rudy won't sell us out in the battle against Islamic extremists, McCain won't turn his back on the troops, Fred won't buy into some scheme to expand big Washington government, Huckabee won't turn his back on Christian values and the unborn. But there is no faction in the GOP that can say with certainty that Mitt will never sell them out.
In this sense, Romney revives memories of George H.W. Bush, like Romney a man of unquestioned personal integrity, a good family man and successful businessman but also a man wholly without political principles, who campaigned as the heir of the Reagan Revolution but ended up giving us tax hikes, a raft of liberal legislation, an adventure in Somalia, David Souter, and, in the end, Bill Clinton. Bush didn't sell us out again and again and again because he was a bad or dishonest man or a closet liberal; he just kept finding the path of least resistance to be running away from the principles he campaigned on, and lacked the core convictions to push back. The Romney record is nothing if not a series of searches for the positions that will be most convenient and popular for him at any given point in time. It's not that Romney's lying to us; but we really are fools if we believe that he will fight tomorrow for the things he says he believes today.
In the next installment: How Romney campaigns like a Democrat, and why that's a problem.