Centrist Shift

‘Proudly Pro-Life’ Romney’s Wriggle on Abortion Seen as ‘Pragmatic’

Nakedly playing politics or pragmatic? Michelle Cottle on his abortion departure—and the vicious response.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo

It appears Mitt Romney’s October shimmy toward the political center is not limited to economic issues. At a Tuesday sit-down with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board, the Republican nominee sounded rather less “severely conservative” on the subject of abortion rights than he had of late.

“There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda,” he informed the assembled journalists.

A wet kiss for Roe v. Wade this was not. It was, however, a departure from the emphatically anti-abortion rights message Romney has been sending for most of his campaign.

Romney’s critics reacted as though goosed with a cattle prod. Groups including Emily’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and People for the American Way swiftly issued statements slamming Romney for trying to wriggle away from his true “anti-choice agenda.”

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, went a step further, announcing that she was taking a leave of absence to officially help the Obama campaign thwart Romney’s attempt to “fool female voters.” In a Wednesday conference call with Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, Richards charged that Romney would “take us back, like 40 years.” Cutter’s contention: “Women cannot trust Mitt Romney.”

No doubt, abortion-rights advocates plan to use Romney’s latest remarks to rally supporters to their cause. “We will continue to set the record straight and continue to … message and mobilize,” Erika West, deputy political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told me during an interview Wednesday afternoon.

Similarly, Emily’s List is happily touting Romney’s statement as more proof of his broadly antiwoman agenda. As spokeswoman Jess McIntosh puts it: “Mitt Romney has shockingly little respect for women. He doesn’t think we should make our own health-care decisions, he doesn’t think we deserve equal pay for equal work, and apparently, now he thinks we’re so slow we won’t see through the biggest lie of the election season.”

Obama himself teed off on Romney in a Wednesday interview with Diane Sawyer. “This is another example of Governor Romney hiding positions he’s been campaigning on for a year and a half,” he said.

Ironically, Romney’s political opponents aren’t the only ones convinced that he is nakedly playing politics.

“What Romney is doing is pretty standard,” says Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “Twenty-seven days before an election, it’s not a great idea to get into the weeds on abortion politics.”

At this point, says Bonjean, Romney doesn’t need to worry about alienating his base: “Pro-life conservatives know he’s going to appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court. That’s a no-brainer.”

Bonjean also points out that, in his Register interview, Romney reiterated his intention to reinstate the so-called Mexico City policy, which bans U.S. foreign aid to organizations that promote abortion as a means of family planning.

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The political right knows where Romney stands on this issue, says Bonjean, just as they understand his need to be “pragmatic.”

Fellow GOP strategist John Feehery echoes that thought. “Good move,” he says of Romney’s shift. “His chief goal is to convince moderates that he isn’t a wingnut.” Besides, adds Feehery, “the fact is that he isn’t going to ban abortion, so he might as well admit it.”

Maybe. But social conservatives were taking no chances. In the wake of Romney’s comments, the anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony List promptly distributed an article the candidate had written in June 2011, outlining his commitment to promoting an anti-abortion rights agenda. The group expressed its “full confidence” that Romney “will stand by” those commitments.

For its part, the Romney campaign quickly began walking back the nominee’s comments. Early Wednesday, spokeswoman Andrea Saul rushed to clarify, “Mitt Romney is proudly pro-life, and he will be a pro-life president.”

And while stumping in Ohio, the governor himself told reporters, “I think I’ve said time and again that I’m a pro-life candidate and I’ll be a pro-life president.”

Love it or loathe it, Romney’s ongoing political rebranding is keeping both sides jumping.