Campaign Crawlers

Mitt’s Epiphanies

Why it's hard to trust a pol who's susceptible to them.

By 3.29.07

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There are two aspects to Mitt Romney that should make conservatives uneasy about his candidacy for the White House. Combined, they are too much for a single column. I'll tackle one issue now, and the other in my next installment. Right now, my focus is Romney's miraculous -- and recent -- shift from social liberal to social conservative.

As any informed conservative now knows, when he ran for governor in 2002, Mitt Romney proclaimed, "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose." Barely two years later, he had changed his mind. The seminal moment allegedly came on November 9, 2004, when Romney met with a stem cell researcher. According to Romney, the researcher said, "Look, you don't have to think about this stem cell research as a moral issue, because we kill the embryos after 14 days." "That struck me as he said it," claims the now rigidly pro-life Romney.

Many observers have, quite reasonably, accused Romney of flip-flopping -- of quickly changing his belief to drum up political support. While that is surely a concern, I think it is less important than if Romney's change of heart is actually genuine. Romney's shift on abortion could be called "issue position by epiphany." He appears to have experienced a sudden revelation that persuaded him to change his mind.

There is nothing wrong with an epiphany per se. Many people have one at some point in their lives. But this is just one of several for Romney. For a supposedly seasoned pol, he seems particularly susceptible to them. His position on gay marriage appears to have followed a similar pattern. When he ran for governor in 2002, he opposed a defense-of-marriage amendment to the state constitution as "too extreme." By 2006, he had done an about-face and was asking Congress to support the Federal Marriage Amendment. In a letter to U.S. senators, he seemed heavily influenced by the changes his state was undergoing after the Massachusetts Supreme Court redefined marriage.

Should conservatives be uneasy with a politician whose change of heart, although possibly genuine, occurs suddenly? Well, yes. It is better if a politician changes his view over a longer period of time. If a politician's view changes gradually, the change is more likely the product of years of thinking and experience. This path would more likely result in a solid position. Supporters can be reasonably certain this new belief won't be easily shaken and can withstand the pressure exerted by the fishbowl that is elected office. This, obviously, is preferable to a candidate who either flip-flops or has an epiphany.

Since Romney's changes of heart don't fall into the gradual change category, conservatives must ask which is better, flip-flops or epiphanies? What assurances do voters have that a politician won't shift his position again -- perhaps after they've been elected? A politician who flip-flops almost always does so to attract political support. The threat of seeing his political support walk away is often sufficient to ensure that he won't flip-flop again. By contrast, an epiphany is not the product of any political calculation. Indeed, a politician who has one is probably not going to worry about alienating supporters. Rather, he is far more likely to try to persuade them that they should change their minds too.

Anyone considering supporting Romney has to be concerned about what other epiphanies he might have should he become President. After consultation with economic advisors, will he have a "moment" where he realizes that reducing the deficit is more important than keeping taxes down? Or will he suddenly conclude that big government welfare not seen since the Great Society era is the only way to take care of the poor? Conservatives of all stripes would be more at ease knowing that their standard-bearer in the White House had values that could more readily withstand moments of intense confrontation.

Romney supporters might respond that all of their candidate's epiphanies have moved him from left to right. Fair enough. But it cannot be discounted that an epiphany moving Romney in the other direction is not in his future. In one big instance while governor, he got behind an initiative that dragged his state heavily to the left. And that, which is the subject of my next column, was health care.

David Hogberg is a writer living in the Washington area. He also hosts his own website, Hog Haven.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.