DAY LATE

03.02.12

How Mitt Romney Missed His Moment on Contraception

Romney blew his chance to actually take a principled position on something—the contraception issue. Why his instant backtracking will come back to haunt him come November.

It tells us everything we need to know about Mitt Romney’s reputation these days that when he declared himself against the Blunt-Rubio contraception amendment in that Ohio television interview on Wednesday, everyone immediately assumed that he misunderstood the question.

The idea that he could possibly have been taking a principled position on a controversial issue and was thus willing to stand up to the Torquemada caucus was something that no one even seriously entertained. If that is how a man is seen, I can pretty well guarantee you that that man will not become the president. Does Romney have it in him to change? He might surprise me, but fundamentally, no, he does not.           

First of all, let’s ponder that interview for a moment. I’m not at all sure that Romney “didn’t understand the question,” as he later insisted in a radio interview. The TV interview host, Jim Heath, asked him about a “Blunt-Rubio” bill that he described as a measure that “deals with banning—or allowing [his emphasis] employers to ban providing female contraception.” The interviewer then noted that Rick Santorum was for the bill. Then: “Have you taken a position on it?”           

OK, there is technically no Blunt-Rubio bill, they’re two different but similar bills. Then, the guy did misspeak. He said banning when he meant allowing. But he quickly corrected himself. And he told Romney that Santorum backed the bill. The interviewer said “he,” not Santorum’s name, but it was obvious from the context that he meant Santorum, who’d been mentioned just before. So, with all that information, Romney said: “I’m not for the bill, but look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a women [sic], husband and wife, I’m not going there.”

That’s where the video clip ends. But the transcript, which most folks seem to be ignoring, catches the telltale follow-up exchange.

Heath: “Surprised he went there?” Meaning, of course, Santorum.

Romney: “You know, I made it very clear when I was being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos in a debate a while ago: contraception is working just fine, let’s just leave it alone.”

Hmm. Still think he misheard the question? Thought it was about “some Ohio legislation,” another defense he trotted out? It’s possible Romney was thinking about something else entirely while Heath was asking the question—you know, daydreaming about firing someone. But there is not one syllable in what he said that suggests the smallest amount of confusion. His words indicate that he is lying—that he understood exactly what he was being asked, and spoke in exactly the manner he intended to speak. He actually meant to take a surprising and semi-courageous position here. He actually said … what he thinks!

Take a stand. Choose something and take a stand that surprises people. Stand up to your base on one thing. Show that you have a spine. Because right now you are a jellyfish.

Then came the puzzlement. A Beast colleague emailed to say, did he really mean to do that? The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent was similarly incredulous. Don’t know about you, but I’d be rethinking things if peoples’ expectations of me were so low that when I said something interesting and bold they immediately wondered whether I’d meant to say it. And then, of course, not even an hour passed before he slithered down to those expectations and buckled.

Now let’s think ahead to the fall and assume that he will be the nominee. When the Obama campaign is bombarding the air with ads in 18 states saying, “Mitt Romney wants any employer, not just religious institutions, to be able to refuse to cover contraceptive services,” how will he respond? Will he be cheesy and unctuous enough to refer back to the Heath interview, insisting that he’s always said that presidents shouldn’t get involved in such questions? Was the Garden of Eden in Missouri? That’s a yes, incidentally, if you’re LDS.

This past Monday on a Beast panel in Detroit, John Avlon asked David Frum what advice he’d give Romney (David said stop running away from his health-care overhaul law). John asked me a different question, but if he’d asked me about the advice I’d give Romney, I’d have said: Take a stand. Choose something and take a stand that surprises people. Stand up to your base on one thing. Show that you have a spine. Because right now you are a jellyfish. People laugh at you. Your father told people where to get off constantly. For whatever psychological reason, you decided to be his opposite. Your choice. But if this race goes the way it looks as if it’s going to go, you will not only lose, but you will go down in history as a punch line. Your name will become a verb, and not a flattering one.

He won’t do it. Well, never say never. Desperation makes people do odd things, and so come mid-October, if he’s 7 points behind and it’s all slipping away from him, maybe he’ll decide then that dear old dad was right all along. But this flip-flop will live on as a pivotal moment in this campaign. Substantively supporting the Blunt bill potentially opens up a huge gender gap, and his instant back-tracking symbolizes everything that is unlikeable about the guy—and that would probably make him a lousy president, who crumples at the mere thought of what a handful of talk-radio hosts are going to be saying about him if he doesn’t cave within the hour.