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November 6, 2012

Change nobody can believe in

There is only one thing that’s constant about Mitt Romney—his endless reinventions.

When he launched his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon faced a formidable obstacle: Many voters simply didn’t like him. Known for his ruthless, rabble-rousing, Red-baiting campaign tactics, he hardly seemed like the right man to heal a wounded country. No problem, Nixon’s aides assured him. The candidate’s image engineers proposed a shrewd solution: It was time to roll out the New Nixon.

The Old Nixon sounded a boastfully hawkish trumpet on foreign policy. The New Nixon touted his “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. The Old Nixon lashed out against his opponents as crypto-Communists. The New Nixon confidently asserted that as president, he would move beyond the old divisions and simply “bring us together.” The Old Nixon acquired a reputation as a crusty curmudgeon. The New Nixon made an appearance—albeit a painfully awkward one—on the hit comedy show Laugh-In.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Nixon’s Democratic opponent, would have none of it. Humphrey mocked the notion that a New Nixon was on the ballot, noting that there seemed to be talk of a new Nixon each time he ran in a national election. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Humphrey quipped, “anybody that’s had his political face lifted so many times can’t be very new.”

Of course, it wasn’t enough to keep Tricky Dick out of the White House. Historians generally ascribe Humphrey’s razor-thin loss to his inability to unify a Democratic Party riven by bitter disagreement over Vietnam. But perhaps history would have played out differently had Humphrey been fortunate enough to have an opponent whose transparent phoniness and shameless shape-shifting would have made even Nixon blush.

Enter Mitt Romney 6.0.

We’ve heard much in this campaign about the ‘two Mitts.’ There’s the Massachusetts moderate who signed the precursor to ‘Obamacare,’ supported abortion and gay rights, and forged working relationships with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. But then there’s the ‘severely conservative’ Romney who opposes abortion rights, calls for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, vows to repeal health care reform “on day one,” and advocates the “self-deportation” of unauthorized immigrants. Commentators typically assume that the right-wing version of Romney emerged solely so he could wrap up the GOP presidential nomination. Once he was elected, voters could expect a return to the ‘real’ Romney. The problem with this narrative is that it fails to acknowledge just how many Mitt models have been released.

Romney 1.0 closely resembles the conservative candidate who claimed the GOP nomination earlier this year. This model precedes his initial run for public office, dating back to his time as the CEO of Bain Capital and a bishop in the Mormon Church. In the latter role, Romney advised a woman with a life-threatening medical condition not to get an abortion, contrary to her doctor’s recommendations. Such anti-abortion extremism would never play well with the Massachusetts electorate, so when Romney ran for the U.S. Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994, he presented himself as a staunch defender of “safe and legal” abortion. That was Romney 2.0, who also pledged to do even more for gay rights than Kennedy. Later, when Romney presided over the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, he gave serious thought to re-launching his political career in conservative Utah. This required the release of Romney 3.0. In a 2001 letter to the Salt Lake Tribune, Romney disavowed his earlier public position on abortion, stating emphatically, “I do not wish to be labeled as pro-choice.”

Alas, a political life in Utah just wasn’t in store for the Olympic savior, so he returned to Massachusetts in 2002 to run for governor, where Romney 4.0 promised once again to support a woman’s right to choose and went so far as to describe himself as a “progressive.” Such a candidate could never win the GOP presidential nomination, so in preparation for his first White House run in 2008, Romney 5.0 hit the showrooms. Rabidly anti-abortion and anti-gay, this Romney had no use for progressive do-gooders and their welfare state. As the Tea Party movement became the dominant voice in the GOP, advisers tweaked Romney 5.0 to become even more hardline in 2012. Discussion of ‘Romneycare’ ceased. Immigration reform proposals, supported by Romney as recently as his 2008 campaign, gave way to support for Arizona’s ‘papers, please’ immigration law. Contraception coverage? An assault on religious freedom. The Paul Ryan budget, which would drastically cut education, health, and welfare programs while cutting taxes for the wealthy? Romney embraced it, even selecting Ryan as his running mate.

His position in the polls imperiled by the time of his first debate against President Barack Obama, Romney calculated that it was time for Romney 6.0: a supporter of contraception coverage, an advocate of “growing” the Pell Grant program, which the Ryan budget slashes, and a Latino-friendly moderate who simply wants to get America working again, not push a far-right policy agenda. Last week, former Sen. Norm Coleman told the Republican Jewish Coalition that Roe v. Wade would be safe under Romney, even though as president Romney would likely have the chance to replace at least one pro-choice justice on the Supreme Court, where only a slim five-to-four majority in favor of Roe currently prevails.

Does this mean that we’re back to the ‘real’ Romney? The fact that we’re now seeing Romney 6.0 should suffice to show the question’s absurdity. The man’s sole core conviction is that he should be President of the United States. That doesn’t mean, however, that he wouldn’t advance an extreme conservative agenda. As president, Romney could not afford to alienate his own party, where hard-core Tea Party fanatics dominate. Whether he personally believes in right-wing policies or not is irrelevant. Romney will be politically obligated to govern as a hardline conservative, and no political face-lift can change that.

Luke Brinker is a graduate student in the MAPSS program.

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