Driving through the backwater mountain towns of West Virginia can be a taxing experience for anyone—especially if you’re a pudgy pseudo-intellectual from New Mexico whose only point of Appalachian cultural reference consists of the oft-spotted McDonalds-Texaco-Pizza Hut triple-threat rest stop. Adding to an ever-growing feeling of bemusement was the smorgasbord of conservative talk-radio filling the cab of my roommate’s Ford F-150. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for tuning in to hear how the other side thinks; after all, it keeps the ol’ intellect spry. How striking it was, then, that so many of these pundits—all of whom described themselves as ardent social conservatives—were supporting Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, in the 2008 Republican Presidential primary season.
Given what I knew about Romney’s record as Governor, it seemed an unlikely union. Before entering the Presidential race, Romney espoused liberal positions on hot-button social issues ranging from gay rights to healthcare. Most notable of all was his stance on the third rail of American social politics: abortion. During his 2002 run for Governor against Democrat Shannon O’Brien, Romney openly touted his pro-choice credentials. In an AP story published in October of that year, Romney announced that he had been endorsed by the New York-based Republican Pro-Choice Coalition, and that his mother, Lenore Romney, had been a strong supporter of abortion rights during her 1970 bid for the US Senate. Romney’s running mate Kerry Healey also told the AP that “there isn’t a dime of difference between Mitt Romney’s position on choice and Shannon O’Brien[‘s].”
The early years of Romney’s term bolstered his pro-choice credentials. Section 16M of Romney’s health insurance plan mandated the inclusion of a representative from the Planned Parenthood League (a leading abortion rights group) on the MassHealth policy advisory board. Romney did not object to the League’s membership, nor did he push for the inclusion of an anti-abortion representative. And while most Republicans would tend to avoid any association with that body, Romney and his wife Ann attended a June 1994 Planned Parenthood fundraiser; Mrs. Romney also donated $150 to the organization. Romney’s healthcare policy unconditionally offered abortions for a $50 co-pay, and in October of 2005, Romney signed into law a measure which would qualify some 88,000 low-income residents for family-planning services, including abortion counseling and ‘morning after’ pills.
Soon after leaving the Governor’s mansion, Romney began to sing a different tune. In early visits to the key primary states of Iowa and South Carolina, Romney began the delicate task of distancing himself from his own record on abortion. In an interview airing on Meet the Press in October 2007, Romney argued that, although he had always been personally opposed to abortion along moral and religious grounds, the political constraints of dealing with a hyper-liberal Democratic legislature had led him to bite the bullet on various health bills containing pro-choice provisions. And who am I to impugn the sincerity of his answer? After all, as Romney (rightly) pointed out during the most recent Republican debate, the expert on a candidate’s opinion and thoughtprocess is the candidate himself. While I have to give Romney some style points, his staff continually bumbled about the issue. A high-ranking Romney staffer put it this way to The National Review: “Governor Romney’s seeming support for abortion rights was a seeming [sic.] ruse to win an election in a Democratic state.”
While this unfortunate staffer was summarily dismissed from the campaign, I think we should all give him (or her) a nice pat on the back for pointing out the elephant in the room. Like other fair-minded political observers, I don’t begrudge a candidate the right to change his or her mind on an issue. Policy decisions guided by ideology are rarely successful in achieving their aims (just ask our current President); they are oftentimes counterproductive. When someone in public office changes her mind on an issue, it tells me that her brain is still functioning, having by some miracle not fallen ill to the intellectual anemia plaguing our political system.
What bothers me about Romney, however, is the almost cavalier way in which he has disavowed his record, and the willingness of those learned radio-pundits to drink the Kool-Aid. As a practicing Roman Catholic who feels a twinge of guilt every time he sees a “you can’t be both Catholic and pro-choice” bumper sticker, I can personally attest to how difficult squaring both political and religious views
on this issue can be. After all, it strikes simultaneously at my belief in the dignity of human life and the inviolability of the freedom of choice. Perhaps the good Governor did undergo some radical change of heart, correlated only with the political realities of the 2008 Republican primary. Nevertheless, one has to ask: what does this conservative reawakening on abortion tell us about Governor Romney, about his own values and the degree to which political forces can influence even his core beliefs?
While government by ideology alone is not desirable, neither is leadership devoid of any commitment to some greater idea—be that justice, equality, or the sanctity of life.
Adding to my consternation is the virtual free ride Romney has enjoyed from some pretty hawkish conservative personalities. Thinking back to 2004, I seem to remember how Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter cornered the market on vilifying presidential candidates from Massachusetts who dared to think differently today than in the past. Flip-flop, anyone? But Ann and Rush have more than made peace with Mitt, forgiving him this one instance of Kerry-like behavior. In the days leading up to the Maine caucuses, Coulter vowed that, if John McCain were to win the nomination instead of Romney, she would gladly vote for Hillary Clinton. After all, “she is more conservative than him [McCain].” Wow. And not to be outdone, Rush Limbaugh has labeled Romney the true conservative in the race. To be fair, McCain has himself become far more conservative in his stance on immigration, taxes, and gay rights. So why is the ‘flip-flopping’ working for Romney and not McCain?
Perhaps what bothers Rush and Ann so much is exactly what McCain has been trying to underplay in his campaign: that while in office, the Arizona Senator has and will play by his own rules. Throughout his congressional tenure, he has broken with the Republican platform on immigration and taxation, as well as on gay marriage. Romney, on the other hand, knows how to play the political game all too well. Unlike McCain, Romney has a reputation of being able to fall in line with the party faithful, and I think this is what some of these pundits are banking on. While he may not have been a poster child for conservative values as the Governor of Massachusetts, it seems pretty clear that what he does in office conforms to the political will of the electorate. In other words, Romney is predictable. It is little wonder, then, why he has been given the title of conservative standard-bearer, in the hopes that, unlike McCain, he will hold the party line once in office.
This certainly is an instance of image politics at its best, which makes me think that whoever said politics is the art of perception was a genius. Maybe this is how the game is supposed to work. Romney’s selective, new-found conservatism could also be interpreted as an instance in which the people have asserted their will over those who govern them. But shouldn’t competitive elections pit different candidates with differing viewpoints against one another?
If everyone decides to follow the party line, is competition really possible? It seems to me that democracy’s truest victory occurs when candidates win and lose because of the positions they hold, not because of their ability to re-craft themselves from one election to the next.