In a sense, the fuss over a 2002 video in which Mitt Romney describes his views as progressive is absurd. After all, from 2003 to 2007 Romney was governor of Massachusetts. His record as governor is public. That record is either progressive or not, depending on your definition of the term. Romney’s comments don’t add any new information into the mix.
And yet, this isn’t about his record, is it? In 2002, Romney was doing exactly what he’s doing now: assuring a skeptical audience that he was, in some essential way, one of them. But he wasn’t. At least, that’s what he says now that he’s trying to convince another skeptical audience with very different views that he’s actually one of them. And ultimately, it’s this question that separates the policy flip-flops of Romney and Gingrich.
Whatever Gingrich’s heterodoxies, conservatives never worry that he’s not, on some fundamental level, a committed member of their tribe. He’s an odd member, maybe. A member who has unexpected ideas about the moon, perhaps. But a member.
With Romney, they worry about it constantly. And they worry about it in part because his views today aren’t progressive at all.
In early-November, Peter Wallsten and Juliet Eilperin went back to the left-leaning constituencies that every politician in Massachusetts needs to appeal to and asked about the pitch Romney made when he was running for governor. According to individuals who were in those meetings, Romney didn’t just say that he supported choice and environmental protection. He said that supporting him was a strategic decision for those groups.
“You need someone like me in Washington,” he reportedly told the advocates. The GOP had swung too far right, and he would be “a good voice in the party” for left-leaning groups. His support for their agenda would mean more than the support of another Democrat. His would be “widely written about.”
Romney was subsequently elected governor. And now he is a Republican with national influence. But he’s not a voice in his party for choice or environmental issues. He says he’s changed his mind on those questions. But in a sense, that’s not good enough. Romney didn’t simply sell himself to those groups based on his policy positions. He sold himself based on the promise that he would be with them in the future. He sold himself based on the idea that they were his tribe, and he would remember that in the future.
His pitch to Republicans now is a bit like his pitch to Democrats then: I may not be the closest candidate to you on every issue, but I’m a good tactical investment because I’m a member of your tribe who can do something the other members can’t. In Massachusetts, that was moderate the Republican Party. Now, it’s defeat President Obama.
But that only works if conservatives can trust Romney to make good on his end of the bargain once in office. And the very argument he’s making to them now is evidence that he has broken such promises in the past.