Sunday, March 25, 2007

Ye Olde Romney

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Once upon a time:

If elected Massachusetts governor, Romney said in an endorsement meeting [way back when, in 2002], he would "preserve and protect" legal abortion. The judges he picked would probably do the same...

"You need someone like me in Washington," he said, according to [Deborah] Allen and two other abortion-rights activists, whose group was deciding whether to endorse Romney in the 2002 race for governor. Though running for state office, Romney hinted at national ambitions and said he would soften the GOP's position on abortion. The Republians' hard-line stance, he said, was "killing them."

How times (or, rather, Romney's political strategies) have changed -- in just five years:

Today, Romney is running for president and promising to pull the Republican Party in the opposite direction, returning it to the conservative principles of Ronald Reagan. He has renounced his support for abortion rights and has shifted his language on gay rights, campaign finance and other issues, bringing him more in step with Republican voters. He mocks Massachusetts, the state he led until January, as "sort of San Francisco East, Nancy Pelosi-style."

Whatever all the hand-wringing over political flip-flopping (Kerry's, McCain's, Romney's, etc.), I actually think it's quite healthy for a politician to adjust his or her views over time. It's often a sign of maturation. Consider Iraq. Maybe you were pro-war back in 2002/3 not because you agreed with the PNAC neocons about the use of American power to promote American interests but because you despised Saddam's tyrannical and genocidal regime and thought that U.N.-based diplomatic measures had simply run their course. Maybe you supported the war reluctantly but confidently, imagining that the warmongers knew what they were doing and had a plan not just for the invasion but for the subsequent occupation. Besides, Powell was on board, and he was far more credible than Cheney and Rumsfeld. And everyone -- everyone -- knew that Saddam had WMDs, and possibly also connections to al Qaeda.

Well, okay. But what if you're pro-war now? What if your views haven't been affected one way or the other by these past four-plus years of war? What if you haven't changed? Wouldn't this be a sign of a lack of maturation?

To be fair, Iraq is not abortion or gay rights -- the analogy isn't perfect. I'm certainly not saying that going from pro-war to anti-war is the same as going from pro-choice to pro-life. However, it is indeed possible for one's views on abortion or gay rights to change over time. Although I am personally pro-choice and pro-gay rights, I can see how someone's views might change in the other direction, from pro-choice to pro-life and pro-gay rights to anti-gay rights. It is more difficult (and disturbing) to see in the latter case, though, as it suggests the acquisition of bigotry against gays (if, that is, the pro-gay rights view was sincere in the first place). Although anti-gay rights activists claim to be defenders of the "family" and of "family values," many of them are quite clearly bigots -- bigots with Bibles. Some also see the pro-life position on abortion as one of bigotry (against women, in that case), and there is perhaps some truth to this. For me, however, and I realize this may be controversial, the pro-life position is more defensible than the anti-gay rights position. Which is also to say that a change from pro-choice to pro-life makes more sense to me than a change from pro-gay rights to anti-gay rights.

Regardless, what we see with Romney's changes on abortion and gay rights is not maturation but opportunism. It's one thing to run in Massachusetts, my former home state, where even a Republican must be a liberal on certain issues if he or she hopes to win statewide office. It's quite another thing to run as a Republican on the national stage, in a presidential race dominated by the party's social conservative (and religious right) base. Once a sensible, moderate Republican, Romney has changed because he has to.

So which is the real Mitt Romney? -- the pro-choice and pro-gay rights moderate or the pro-life and anti-gay rights conservative? I suspect it's the former, the one more like his father, the business conservative whose views on social issues tended to border on libertarianism. But who knows? It isn't easy to see the real Romney through the layers of GOP-friendly bullshit.

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