It's hard to blame anyone for wondering if Mitt Romney is a flip-flopper of the first order. After all, he's a gifted and ambitious politician. He's also a pol who has changed his mind on one of the most fundamental issues of our time: abortion. Finally, the outgoing Republican governor and possible GOP presidential candidate is from Massachusetts, the state that gave us John "I actually voted for it before I voted against it" Kerry.
But is Romney just another glib Bay State quick-change artist who's rearranged his stripes because he would like to be president? Is he angling for acceptance among GOP social conservatives by turning himself into something he's not?
Romney makes no bones about the fact that his position on abortion has changed. He was pro-choice when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and governor in 2002. He's "firmly pro-life" now.
What happened? Well, it's always possible he had a campaign conversion. He's a politician, remember, and a gifted one at that. We'd be naive to discount possible political considerations. But it's also possible he had an authentic epiphany on the life issue. Many people have. If the pro-life movement didn't let in converts, it would have done without the services of, say, Ronald Reagan.
Romney says he did have an epiphany, and he's explicit about the exact moment. "[S]everal years ago, in the course of the stem-cell-research debate, I met with a pair of experts from Harvard," he told National Review Online's Kathryn Lopez recently. "At one point the experts pointed out that embryonic stem cell research should not be a moral issue because the embryos were destroyed at 14 days. After the meeting I looked over at ... my chief of staff, and we both had exactly the same reaction—it just hit us hard just how much the sanctity of life had been cheapened by virtue of the Roe v. Wade mentality. And from that point forward, I said to the people of Massachusetts, 'I will continue to honor what I pledged to you, but I prefer to call myself pro-life.'"
You may like his new position (I do) or not like it. You may wonder whether it's a matter of conscience (my choice) or political convenience. But there it is.
The recent criticism of Romney's flip-flop on gay rights, on the other hand, is just silly. Critics point out that he reached out to (gay) Log Cabin Republicans in 1994. He promised to be a more effective supporter of equal rights for gays than Ted Kennedy. But then, in 2003, he came out in opposition to the Massachusetts high court's gay marriage decree.
A flip-flop? Hardly. Gay marriage wasn't even an issue in 1994. It's also worth noting that Romney didn't go looking for the marriage issue. His state's high court brought it to him and the people of Massachusetts. The fact is it is possible to oppose discrimination against homosexuals while supporting traditional marriage, though some Boston.com headline writers apparently think this is news. ("Romney against bias to gays despite opposition to gay marriage," Dec. 18, 2006.) Yes, it's possible to reject the extremes and stake out a common-sense middle ground on this set of issues.
In fact, that's the same measured and humane position Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith takes, which is likely no accident. As Mormons, both are committed to traditional institutions and values yet also sensitive to the kind of bigotry Mormons have endured. Unlike Smith, Romney no longer thinks there's a need for new laws to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation. His Massachusetts experience has convinced him, he told Lopez, that such a law "would open a litigation floodgate and unfairly penalize employers at the hands of activist judges."
Whether Republican voters will find Romney's new or old views credible, as I do, will become clear over the next two years. What's clear now is that no GOP candidate, this side of a Newt Gingrich, will do a better job of explaining his views. And none will do a better job of advancing those views with an admirable decency and respect for others.
"It's important to note that in defending traditional marriage the Legislature is not attacking nontraditional relationships," Romney said often during Massachusetts marriage debates. "People of differing views and lifestyles deserve respect and decency from all of us. There are real people and real lives that are deeply affected by this issue. ..."