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Missed Opportunity Mitt

Flip-flop charges from his rivals may say less about Romney's commitment to conservative principles than what he left behind in Massachusetts.

By 6.18.07

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For Mitt Romney, the flip-flopping charges won't go away. On the eve of the National Right to Life Convention, the McCain campaign released a "Mitt vs. Fact" YouTube video of Romney saying he was "absolutely committed" to maintaining Massachusetts' pro-choice status quo -- six months after his conversion to the pro-life position.

Then ABC News journalists Jake Tapper and Rick Klein followed up with a report questioning the sincerity of that conversion entirely. They pointed out that Romney repeatedly appointed avowedly pro-choice judges to Massachusetts courts even after his November 2004 epiphany, and also appeared to endorse a bill lifting certain restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem-cell research (he opposes the bill now).

There are arguments that could be made in Romney's defense. While Tapper and Klein concede that "[a]ll judicial nominations are confirmed by the independently elected -- and all-Democratic -- Governor's Council," they claim "the council has very rarely rejected any governor's selections."

But most Massachusetts governors before 1991 were liberals, giving the entirely Democratic body little reason to reject their judicial nominees. In the 16 years Republicans held the governorship, they did as Romney did -- they compromised with the council's Democrats by appointing a mixture of liberals and conservatives. Some rubber stamp.

When William Weld nominated the extremely well qualified Harvard Law Professor Charles Fried to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the council nearly balked. While Fried was personally pro-choice, as Ronald Reagan's solicitor general he defended before the Supreme Court the 40th president's position that Roe v. Wade should be overturned.

Fried was eventually confirmed. But to balance this conservative choice, Weld also had to nominate such liberal justices as Margaret Marshall, the wife of longtime New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis. Marshall, promoted to chief justice by Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci, later handed down the Goodridge vs. Department of Health decision that discovered a right to same-sex marriage in the commonwealth's 223-year-old constitution.

As for John McCain and his video, it is hard to imagine that the Arizona senator would be touting his pro-life bona fides if he hadn't lost his leads in Iowa and New Hampshire. As the commentator David Frum once observed of another Republican politician, McCain's record is "pro-life but closed-mouthed."

Yet something else happened last week that illustrates why the questions about Romney's sincerity aren't likely to go away. The Massachusetts legislature killed a referendum that would have put same-sex marriage on the commonwealth's ballot.

Mitt Romney has made his stand against gay marriage an important part of his campaign and perhaps the centerpiece of his appeal to social conservatives in Iowa and beyond. He frequently points out that he defended the traditional definition of marriage in substance; he also argued that any redefinition should be democratic in process.

To that end, in 2004 Romney helped cobble together a majority in the state legislature for a constitutional amendment reversing Goodridge. He managed to persuade enough Republicans who opposed civil unions, which the amendment would have allowed, that it was the best chance to prevent same-sex marriage, which it would have nullified.

But when the amendment came up for a second vote in 2005, the coalition supporting it fell apart. Liberals decided they could have gay marriage without civil unions. Conservatives believed they could get rid of Goodridge without creating same-sex marriage-lite.

Undaunted, Romney endorsed the more conservative amendment. Against all odds and with much cajoling from the then-governor, the legislators decided to let the people have their say.

Maybe Romney could have done it again during last week's crucial second vote, where just five legislators voting differently would have changed the outcome. Maybe he couldn't have. We'll never know, because he left the commonwealth after a single term, declaring his work as governor done.

This isn't the only example. On the campaign trail, Romney touts his agreement with the federal government to allow specially trained state troopers to help enforce immigration laws. What he doesn't say is that the agreement had barely taken effect before his successor, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, rescinded it upon taking office.

Romney also makes the case for his healthcare legislation being an example of sound conservative reform. This was always problematic but it has become more so now that his Democratic successors are revisiting the idea of an employment mandate (in addition to the individual mandate already in force).

If Romney wanted to prove that his approach could somehow avoid higher taxes and staggering regulatory burdens, why did he leave office without giving his healthcare plan a chance to work on something closer to his terms?

Perhaps it is too cynical to suggest that Romney was more interested in putting conservative policies on his resume than seeing them to fruition. Massachusetts is an overwhelmingly Democratic state; Romney fit the profile of the Republicans who were taken out in 2006's blue tide. Maybe Mitt had truly done all the 90 percent Democratic legislature was going to let him do.

But as this Boston-bred writer contemplates Taxachusetts' revival, it is hard not to wonder whether Romney could have stopped it. The fact that he didn't try may say more than a thousand YouTube videos.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.