By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Precisely two years ago, Mitt Romney, then the governor of Massachusetts but already eyeing a 2008 presidential bid, sat in the coffee shop of a Washington hotel, doing his best not to explain his views on abortion.
Romney was speaking to a few of us from The Post, and my colleague Dan Balz noted the similarity between Romney's expressed views on abortion rights and the stance of another Massachusetts politician, Sen. John F. Kerry: Both men said they were personally opposed to abortion but did not support making it illegal.
From there, Romney proceeded to expound one of the odder positions I've heard in years of listening to politicians talk about a subject most would prefer to avoid: "I can tell you what my position is, and it's in a very narrowly defined sphere, as candidate for governor and as governor of Massachusetts," he said. "What I said to people was that I personally did not favor abortion, that I am personally pro-life. However, as governor I would not change the laws of the commonwealth relating to abortion.
"Now I don't try and put a bow around that and say what does that mean you are -- does that mean you're pro-life or pro-choice, because that whole package -- meaning I'm personally pro-life but I won't change the laws, you could describe that as -- well, I don't think you can describe it in one hyphenated word."
Got it? I didn't, and I asked, "Do you support making abortion illegal? I'm not talking about what you would do as governor of Massachusetts."
Romney: "But that's the furthest I'm going to take you right now. I'm governor of Massachusetts, and I'm telling you exactly what I will do as governor of Massachusetts, but I'm not going to tell you what I'd do as mayor of Boston or a congressman or any of those positions."
I reprint so much of Romney's answer (you can read or listen to the full exchange online) because its baroque circumlocutions seemed to say so much about him. It was hard to know what Romney actually thought about abortion rights other than that this was a political minefield it was best to avoid stepping into for as long as possible.
But it was also hard to see how a man with deeply held convictions on abortion rights -- either for or against -- could take a position so calibrated and inconclusive. Listening to Romney that day was like watching a chameleon in the fleeting moment that its color changes to suit its environment. Indeed, several months later, after vetoing a bill to expand access to emergency contraception, Romney wrote in the Boston Globe about how his views on the subject had "evolved and deepened."
Evolved, indeed. During his Massachusetts races, Romney paraded his conviction that "abortion should be safe and legal in this country" and promised that "you will not see me wavering" on Roe v. Wade.
Now Romney says he opposes abortion except in cases of rape and incest or to save the life of the mother, and supports overturning Roe. At the National Review Institute Conservative Summit last month -- at the very hotel where he had told us of his commitment to not altering state law one way or another -- Romney boasted that each time an issue involving reproductive rights came up during his governorship, "on every single one of them I came down on the side of respecting human life."
Romney's "Extreme Makeover: Political Edition" goes beyond abortion rights. Once he supported allowing gays to serve openly in the military and backed a federal law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation -- not anymore. He's gone from saying "I don't line up with the NRA" to becoming, last August, a life member.
Romney told the Boston Globe in 1994 that, as a registered independent, he voted in the 1992 Democratic primary for Paul Tsongas because Tsongas was from Massachusetts and he favored Tsongas's ideas over Bill Clinton's. Appearing last weekend on ABC's "This Week," Romney offered a contradictory explanation: "When there was no real contest in the Republican primary, I'd vote in the Democrat primary, vote for the person who I thought would be the weakest opponent for a Republican."
Surely a man with a Harvard MBA could do better than that. At the time of the primary, Tsongas was doing better than Clinton in matchups against George H.W. Bush. And Tsongas didn't need Romney's help trouncing Clinton in his home state.
To give this explanation the credit it doesn't deserve, Romney's rationale boils down to arguing that he didn't really mean his vote; he was just trying to game the political process. Those considering Romney in 2008 have reason to wonder what a politician who admits so freely to that kind of manipulation is willing to do to win their votes.