These are heady times for Mitt Romney, and not just because he raised $10.25 million in one day. After a long reign as the Republican presidential field’s top flip-flopper, he’s been left in the dust by Newt Gingrich.
Romney could not ask for a better foil. He looks like “the Rock of Gibraltar of consistency” compared to Gingrich, says political scientist John Pitney, who observed the former House speaker at close range as a GOP congressional aide. Even if Gingrich is a short-timer in the 2012 race, Romney should not despair. All of the plausible Republican hopefuls have major flips on their resumes.
Like Romney, most of them have jettisoned inconveniently moderate parts of their pasts as they prepare to face a very conservative primary electorate. Gingrich is in a different category—on pace to set a record for the most and fastest reversals by a White House contestant, with little discernible pattern or strategy.
Earlier this year, for instance, Gingrich berated President Obama for not intervening in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi. Then when Obama established a no-fly zone, Gingrich said he would not have intervened. The former speaker is currently in the throes of trying to explain why he described conservative Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan in terms lifted straight from a liberal playbook: “radical change” and “right-wing social engineering.” It was actually the second phase of what is so far a triple flip: from telling Time magazine he would have voted for Ryan’s plan, to criticizing it harshly on NBC’s Meet the Press, to asserting there is little daylight between him and Ryan and any ad quoting what he said on Meet the Press would be false.
“Gingrich Was for Ryan’s Budget Before He Was Against It,” read Time’s embarrassing headline. Shades of John Kerry, who handed Republicans a lethal weapon when he said during the 2004 presidential campaign that he had voted for a war-funding bill before he voted against it. It helped them brand Kerry a flip-flopper and, by implication, a man of doubtful character, untrustworthy in these dangerous times. Yet Kerry has not been particularly inconsistent during his 26-year Senate career. “He got an unfair rap,” says Bob Shrum, who was Kerry’s senior campaign adviser. By contrast, he says, this year’s GOP field is awash with recantations, as problem-solving former governors try to forge a path to the nomination.
The flip-flop label is most effective when used against politicians who have not yet defined themselves to a national audience. That’s what happened to Kerry and what Democrats are now attempting with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. “ Which Huntsman will we actually see?” former Democratic Congressman Richard Swett asked Thursday in the Concord Monitor as Huntsman arrived in New Hampshire for his first visit. The New Hampshire Democratic Party circulated a press release called “Will Jon Huntsman Be the new Mitt Romney?” As in rich, handsome and Mormon? Not exactly, judging by the “handy checklist” the party provided for keeping track of Huntsman flip-flops.
Huntsman’s very entry into the race could be viewed as one big flip-flop, since he resigned less than a month ago as Obama’s ambassador to China. He has praised Obama’s leadership and his ideas on health care. According to the Democrats’ checklist, Huntsman is also pro-stimulus, pro-TARP and pro-gay rights—all stands the Democrats say bear watching as Huntsman courts conservatives who revile them.
A common flip-flop these days involves cap-and-trade. Conservatives once enthused that cap-and-trade would unleash market forces to control carbon emissions and slow global warming (pollution permits would be traded under an overall emissions cap). Now “cap-and-tax” is anathema to them and some even reject the scientific consensus that the Earth’s climate is changing. This is quite awkward for people like Huntsman and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who once praised the approach and signed up their states for regional cap-and-trade systems.
Pawlenty recorded a 2008 ad with Democrat Janet Napolitano—then governor of Arizona—urging Congress to “ cap greenhouse gas pollution now.” But at a GOP candidate debate this month in South Carolina, Pawlenty apologized for his “mistake.” Huntsman said in a 2008 gubernatorial debate that “we must put a value on carbon,” ultimately through a cap-and-trade system. This month, however, he told Time that “Cap-and-trade ideas aren’t working.” Gingrich not only seemed supportive of cap-and-trade in the past, he made a TV ad in which he and then Speaker Nancy Pelosi (!) called on Congress to find a solution to global warming. He now says he’s not convinced it’s a problem and denies any past affection for cap-and-trade.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has not been a cap-and-trade fan, but he will still have some explaining to do if he gets into the race. He appears to have flipped on federal stimulus money—signing on with other governors last year to ask for more of it to help with Medicaid costs, then slamming a bill that would provide the money. Also, Daniels recently signed a bill cutting off Medicaid funds to Planned Parenthood clinics in his state. It was a well-timed reassurance to social conservatives angered by his suggestion last year that the two parties call a temporary truce on social issues while they work together to avoid a debt-driven national fiscal meltdown. Truce or no truce? That is the question.
It’s a rare politician who shifts in a direction that will hurt rather than help him. George H.W. Bush did it by reversing his no-new-taxes pledge and Obama did it by accepting the individual mandate, requiring almost everyone to buy health insurance under his new law. Romney’s shifts, like the U-turns his rivals have made on cap-and-trade, fit the more common pattern: Whatever the motivation, they serve his ambitions of the moment. An opponent of gay and abortion rights, he supported those rights when he was running for office in liberal Massachusetts. A proud signer of the Massachusetts health care law, he’s now holding it at arms’ length—but not quite rejecting it outright—because it was the model for the “Obamacare” law despised by conservatives. “People are still trying to assess what’s inside these folks and on that dimension he’s quite vulnerable,” leadership expert Marty Linsky, a longtime faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says of Romney.
The difference for Romney this year is that much of the field is vulnerable for the same reasons. Instead of being mocked as a shape-shifter, maybe he should be hailed as a pioneer.
Jill Lawrence is an award-winning journalist who has covered every presidential election since 1988. Most recently, she was a senior correspondent and columnist for PoliticsDaily.com. Her other positions have included national political correspondent for USA Today and national political writer at The Associated Press.