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The Talented Mr. Romney

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

I have been following the zigs and zags of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and now Republican presidential candidate, watching him grow progressively less progressive, sort of making himself up as he goes along. As a result, I surf the Web with trepidation, bracing myself for the story that I fear might be coming: "Romney Says He Is Not Really a Mormon.''

I joke, of course. But the way things are going, I would not be surprised if the possibility of a Romney religious conversion has gone from inconceivable to a focus group for, as they say, further study. After all, the same bloc of voters -- conservative Christians -- that once found Romney suspiciously liberal on abortion and gay rights does not much like his Mormonism, either. This nice touch of intolerance has got to worry Romney. In recent polls, something like one-third of all voters have said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate -- and the figure is a bit higher (39 percent) among Republicans. Iowa, where conservative Christians comprise about 37 percent of the GOP electorate, could be trouble.

What's an ambitious, square-jawed opportunist to do? He might do as he has done in the past and change his position. He once was nicely supportive of gay issues -- not marriage, but civil unions -- and of repealing the odious "don't ask, don't tell'' provisions relating to military service. Romney once felt so strongly about gay rights that he even went to the left of Ted Kennedy in their 1994 senatorial battle. "The gay community needs more support from the Republican Party,'' Romney said in an interview that year. And in a letter written in 1994 to the Log Cabin Republicans, he looked forward to the day when gays and lesbians could serve "openly and honestly in our nation's military." That day will not come should he become president, he has said recently. Peering into the homophobic heart of GOP primary voters, Romney now thinks gays ought to stay in the closet. He has changed his mind.

Something similar happened on abortion. Where once Romney wanted it safe and legal, he now clearly just wants it illegal. This metamorphosis came as he studied the issue of embryonic stem cell research and had nothing to do, mind you, with his race for the Republican nomination. Okay, I too have evolved on certain aspects of the abortion issue -- late-term abortion, for instance -- but a total flip from always legal to always illegal (the clear message he's sending abortion foes) can have only one explanation: Potomac fever.

Romney is not the only Republican candidate to mothball principles for the campaign. Rudy Giuliani is now not as pro-choice as he used to be, and John McCain has hired the very mudslingers he once wanted to garrote. But Romney is in a class of his own. He used to have fairly reasonable positions on gun control. Within the past year, though, he joined the National Rifle Association -- an admission made under some duress Sunday to George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week.'' In fact, to watch Romney on the show was to see a thoroughly counterfeit man. If he were a coin, a vending machine would spit him out.

Of course, I do not really expect Romney to renounce his religion since, among other things, it would cost him more votes than it would gain him. But I do suggest that his craven crawl toward the White House shows a man of obvious talents and experience who illustrates how broken our system is. Why should anyone have to tailor his beliefs to get past ideological bottlenecks in the early primary states? For Republicans, it's the religious right; for Democrats, it's economic pressure groups such as teachers unions. The rest of us can only stand by, helpless, waiting for extremists to pick a man or woman on the basis of issues that mean less to us -- not the war in Iraq, for instance, but gay civil unions.

If there is one thing to say for the system, though, it is that it subjects presidential candidates to a kind of torture. We learn early on which of them have principles, backbone and pride in themselves -- the sort of integrity we want in a president. Since all politicians, like lovers and mattress salesmen, lie a bit, we do not expect purity. But Romney has taken things too far. I don't know whether he has any respect for himself, but he sure as hell has none for us.

cohenr@washpost.com


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