The ‘Moderate Mitt’ Myth
The way a presidential candidate campaigns for office matters to the country. A campaign should demonstrate seriousness of purpose and a set of core beliefs, and it should signal to voters whether a candidate shows trustworthiness and judgment. Those things don’t seem to matter to Mitt Romney.
From the beginning of his run for the Republican nomination, Mr. Romney has offered to transfigure himself into any shape desired by an audience in order to achieve power. In front of massed crowds or on television, he can sound sunny and inclusive, radiating a feel-good centrism. His “severely conservative” policies and disdain for much of the country are reserved for partisans, donors and the harsh ideologues who clutter his party’s base. This polarity is often described as “flip-flopping,” but the word is too mild to describe opposing positions that are simultaneously held.
The best way to judge candidates is not by the popular way they describe their plans near the end of a campaign; it is by the most divisive presentations of themselves earlier on. A candidate’s political calculations when fewer people are watching is likely to say far more about character than poll-tested pleasantries in the spotlight.
That’s what is disingenuous about the “Moderate Mitt” in recent speeches and the first presidential debate. He hasn’t abandoned or flip-flopped from the severe positions that won him the Republican nomination; they remain at the core of his campaign, on his Web site and in his position papers, and they occasionally slip out in unguarded moments. All he’s doing is slapping whitewash on his platform. The immoderation of his policies, used to win favor with a hard-right party, cannot be disguised.
This week, for example, in the swing state of Iowa, Mr. Romney tried to cover up his strident anti-abortion agenda. “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda,” he told The Des Moines Register’s editorial board. But that carefully worded statement was designed to mislead, because the threat to women’s rights doesn’t necessarily come from legislation. He would cut financing for Planned Parenthood, and he has said he wants to overturn Roe v. Wade and would appoint justices who would do so.
And, though he has conveniently forgotten, he does support anti-abortion legislation — what he called in a 2011 essay the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act to ban abortion when a fetus can feel pain. In 2007, he said he’d sign a bill prohibiting all abortions. He has also tried to paper over his positions on his $5 trillion tax cut, pretending it would be cost-free, and he now says he wants to cover pre-existing health conditions, though his plan does so only for those who have insurance coverage.
At last week’s debate, Mr. Romney presented himself as a bipartisan leader able to work with Democrats. But that’s not how Massachusetts Democrats remember his tenure as governor, as Michael Wines of The Times reported last week. He ignored or insulted Democrats and failed to achieve most of his big-ticket proposals, like reform of the Civil Service and pension systems. His decision to support a universal health care system in 2006, long advocated by Democrats, was seen at the time as a purely political calculation, at least until Republicans rejected the idea in 2009 when President Obama proposed it.
There isn’t really a Moderate Mitt; what is on display now is better described as Convenient Mitt. Anyone willing to advocate extremism to raise money and win primaries is likely to do the same to stay in office.