I believe it’s David Frum who’s noted that one reason Mitt Romney has such a hard time shaking his reputation as a flip-flopping panderer is that he’s actually not very good at pandering. For example, when pressed last night by Piers Morgan about why he changed his view on abortion, he simply noted that other Republican Presidents had also made this flip-flop so why should it be held against him?
MORGAN: I mean you’re aware it’s a very, very hot issue in America, certainly for politicians. And that your critics jump on that as one of the examples of you being just a flip-flop. How do you — how do you counter that, given your view has changed so dramatically on that one issue?
M. ROMNEY: Well, Ronald Reagan was also pro-choice and then became pro-life. And George Herbert Walker Bush was pro-choice and became pro-life. And they became pro-life as they took the responsibility of — of leading. And — and in that circumstance, they recognized that they…
MORGAN: How many times —
M. ROMNEY: — they did not — they could not simply sign up for — for the taking of unborn life.
Part of the reason this is less forgivable is simply that it’s a later period in time. When the question of abortion exploded unto the national political scene in the late 1960s, it was a completely new issue that bore no fixed relationship to traditional ideological cleavages in America. What’s more, it hit the agenda at a time when the parties were already engaged in substantial realignment driven by the decline of the Democratic Party’s white supremacist faction. Under the circumstances, a lot of politicians of a certain age wound up needing to flip their position in order to bring themselves into line with the partisan/ideological alignment that solidified in the 1980s wherein in came to be taken for granted that support for criminalizing abortion “goes together” with support for low taxes, high military spending, and opposition to environmental regulation and labor unions.
Mitt Romney is a different character. By the time he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, it was already well-established that conservatives are against legal abortion. And when Romney was running, there was no denying that he was in general more conservative than Shannon O’Brien. But the perception that he might be less pro-choice than O’Brien was deadly in the eyes of many otherwise Romney-friendly voters. Consequently, he found himself angrily denying that he was even slightly less pro-choice than O’Brien, and indeed offered what I think is one of the most passionate defenses of abortion rights I’ve ever heard from a male politician:
This is the question Romney is being asked to answer. He seems to have felt quite strongly about this issue in 2002, but then by 2008 claimed to feel quite strongly about it on the other side. Now common sense indicates that if elected President Romney would “stay bought” on this issue and govern as an abortion opponent. To me, that should be good enough for non-fanatics on either side to make up their mind. But if people are interested in “character” questions, this is what I mean about judging character based on someone’s career.