Time and again, opponents would uncork a seemingly devastating assault — Hillary Clinton slamming Barack Obama for being willing to negotiate with dictators, or John McCain proposing to call off the campaign to deal with the economic crisis — and Obama would use it against them. The payoff was twofold: Obama got to attack without going negative first, and he forced his challengers to second-guess themselves.
In recent months, Mitt Romney has shown a similar talent. Prior to this election, the rap on the former Massachusetts governor was simple: He was too two-faced to ever win the presidency. For Romney’s opponents, it was supposed to be an easy and devastating line of attack. These days, he’s showing that he may be just two-faced enough to win.
This is not the first campaign in which Romney’s sincerity has come under question. Back in 1994, when he was challenging Sen. Ted Kennedy, Romney was asked at a debate to explain his position on abortion. His answer, in short, was that he was personally opposed, but he didn’t think his personal preferences should be written into law.
Kennedy coolly dismembered him. “On the question of the choice issue,” Kennedy replied, “I have supported Roe v. Wade. I am pro-choice. My opponent is multiple choice.” Kennedy was righter than he knew. Today, Romney says his position has evolved further, and if Roe v. Wade were overturned, he would “be delighted” to sign a bill outlawing abortion.
This might be the first campaign in which Romney’s reputation as “multiple-choice Mitt” actually helps him. Under the influence of the tea party, the Republican Party has swung far to the right. Romney’s most credible primary challenger is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has suggested that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional. The challenger closest to him in the polls is former Godfather’s Pizza executive Herman Cain, who runs as the ultimate outsider. Jon Huntsman, a traditional business conservative whose success as governor of Utah would normally make him a serious contender, finds himself mired in the low single digits after having acknowledged the realities of global warming and evolution and supporting civil unions for same-sex couples.
Romney rarely disagrees with tea party orthodoxy. If tea partyers want to repeal the health-reform law, then so does he. If they think the science behind global warming is unsettled, so does he. If they think the individual insurance mandate is unconstitutional, so does he (at least at the federal level). If they think a budget deal that includes $10 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases is too tilted toward tax increases, so does he. If they think stimulus is a scam, so does he. If they think Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke is dangerously inflationary, so does he.
But Romney has just enough in his gubernatorial record, and does just enough on the campaign trail, to signal that maybe, deep down, he doesn’t believe any of it. After all, he didn’t just pass an individual mandate in Massachusetts. In June 2009, he said “the right way to proceed” on health reform would be the Wyden-Bennett bill, which included a national individual mandate. In 2005, Romney said he believed the world is getting warmer and called cap-and-trade “good for business.” Among his economic advisers are former U.S. representative Vin Weber, who supported the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan, which included much more than $1 in revenue for every $10 in tax cuts; Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, who has called for a tax on carbon; and Columbia economist Glenn Hubbard, who sees little problem with raising revenue by cutting deductions and loopholes. Mankiw has also defended Bernanke, even going beyond the Federal Reserve chairman by calling for higher inflation.
Does all this make Romney look a bit like the multiple- choice candidate? Sure. But in a good way. For moderate Republicans worried about their party’s appeal to the center in 2012, and Democrats worried about losing the White House in 2012, the implication is that Romney is a pragmatist. True, he’s pandering now, but he chooses good advisers, makes policy based on sound evidence and might prove to be a centrist — or at least center-right — president. As Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post, “Maybe it’s time for Democrats to go easy on Mitt Romney.”
But perhaps Romney isn’t two-faced at all. Perhaps it’s just one face. Romney is a small-“d” democrat. Whatever his constituency believes, that’s what he champions. So when he was governing a blue state, he pursued a policy agenda, including a dramatic expansion of health insurance, that even liberals could love. When he competes for conservative votes, he swings to the right.
The question it raises is who Romney’s constituency will be if he wins the presidency. The country? His party? The swing voters whose support he’ll need to move legislation through Congress? The conservative activists who could mount a primary challenge in 2016?
Normally, that sort of uncertainty would be disqualifying in a presidential candidate. But this is not a normal election. For Democrats and moderate Republicans unnerved by the sharp rightward tilt in conservative orthodoxy, better the flip- flopping technocrat you don’t really know than a hard-core conservative ideologue you do.