Mitt Romney was more likable as a liberal. That, at least, was my conclusion after watching a devastating video put together by the Democratic Party’s best (and maybe only) strategist: comedian Jon Stewart. Before my eyes was an early Rombot model, circa 1994, that we’ve not seen since: emotional, passionate, lively. He sneered derisively at the “Reagan-Bush” years, bragged about being a political independent, and indignantly defended his “consistent” support of abortion rights. Romney was so proud of his pro-choice pedigree that he even tweaked his Senate opponent, Democrat Ted Kennedy, for equivocation. A few years later, when he ran for governor and was asked about support he’d received from a pro-life organization, he squirmed more uncomfortably than if he’d been forced to watch a marathon of “Mike and Molly.”
That, of course, is not the Mitt Romney running for president today. In fact the Republican’s encyclopedia-sized list of policy reversals makes 2004’s whipping boy, John “I voted for it before I voted against it” Kerry, look like an exemplar of political consistency. All of which raises a haunting question for the GOP as the clock ticks down to the Iowa caucuses: in a party whose potential nominees include Gary Johnson and Ron Paul, could the GOP’s “safe” choice actually be its most reckless gamble?
In 1994, Romney ran for the United States Senate as a “William Weld moderate” because that is what he believed it took to get elected in Massachusetts. On nearly every issue he was boldly to the left of the Republican mainstream. He labeled Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” too partisan, opposed capital-gains-tax cuts, vowed to encourage banks to give home loans to poor families, and, as The Washington Post put it, “stressed his support for universal health insurance and abortion rights.” At a debate with Kennedy in Boston, the paper noted, Romney “was more outspoken than Kennedy in arguing that the Boy Scouts should not exclude homosexual youths.” Romney once bragged that he voted for a Democrat, Paul Tsongas, in the 1992 presidential primaries, though he later tried to change his story and his rationale. Stewart pointed out that then-Governor Romney vowed to close “corporate loopholes” in the language now used by President Obama. And Romney’s ever-evolving position on his health-care proposal—which he once called a model for the nation—is notorious.
Only Romney, of course, can know if his is a conversion of conviction or convenience. And in his defense other candidates have undergone similarly broad political evolutions—Ronald Reagan was once a New Dealer; Hillary Clinton was once a Goldwater girl. But their metamorphoses, which in Reagan’s case evolved over decades, came across as believable, even principled, to voters. The problem Romney continues to face is that nothing he says translates that way. As Ted Kennedy famously put it in a debate, “He isn’t pro-choice or anti-choice. He’s multiple choice.”
This, of course, was the same issue Senator Kerry faced in 2004, when he was relentlessly mocked by the Bush campaign for his perceived shift on his vote to fund the Iraq war. Bush himself had reversed on issues from time to time, as all politicians do. But the flip-flop charge only clung to Kerry—and may well have doomed him—because it seemed to say something larger about Kerry’s cool and lofty persona: he was opportunistic, another politician, unlikable, untrustworthy. Voters seem to feel the same way about Romney today: so far the man who by all rights should be the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination cannot seem to garner more than 25 percent of Republican voters. Matters may get worse.
Though Romney’s curious political conversion was well known to political operatives during his previous run for the White House, it was never fully examined. That’s because he was fortunate in his political opponents: his main rival, John McCain, was a notorious flip-flopper, and nobody ever paid much attention to anything Mike Huckabee said. This time, Romney won’t be so lucky. Already, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is reminding voters of Romney’s former Massachusetts-friendly views on the environment. And if Romney is the GOP nominee, the Obama campaign would be even more hapless than it already is expected to be if it doesn’t turn to the same strategy.
It’s not clear if there is an easy solution for Romney. Perhaps his best bet is to find something to become passionate or emotional about, to find opportunities to demonstrate that his political views are principled, on issues that are hard or even unpopular. Otherwise, voters will find themselves preoccupied with another question: do they really know the man named Willard, then Billy, then Mitt who came from Michigan, then Utah, then Massachusetts? The real trouble for the Romney campaign is that it’s not entirely clear if the candidate has a firm answer to that question himself.