The first Republican primary is more than 10 months away, but Mitt Romney has already taken the low road. In an effort to burnish his own conservative credentials, Romney has launched a series of attacks against his major rivals that distort their records and ignore his own.
With his poll numbers still mired in the single digits, it's understandable that Romney is desperate to tear down his opponents, but his campaign should do so with a little more tact, and some modesty about Romney's own flimsy conservative record.
Last month, the Politico reported that Gary Marx, Romney's liaison to conservatives, sent out an email to 100 influential social conservatives questioning John McCain's commitment to the pro-life cause. "Ask the pro-life movement where his leadership has been in the six years since 2000 that he's been running for president," Marx was quoted as saying. "What has he done?"
While McCain has deviated from the anti-abortion movement in recent years on stem cell research, he has had a mostly solid pro-life voting record since the early 1980s. Furthermore, as W. James Antle III has pointed out, it's quite audacious for the Romney campaign to attack McCain for being insufficiently pro-life since 2000, given that Romney ran for governor as a pro-choice candidate in 2002 and didn't become publicly pro-life until 2005. Not to mention that Romney was officially pro-choice for at least six years prior to 2000.
In his well-received speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last Friday, Romney went after McCain directly. In one of the biggest applause lines of his speech, Romney promised to fight for the repeal of the dreaded McCain-Feingold law. This is a typical empty gesture by a presidential candidate, because as president Romney would have very little power to repeal the law, and were he ever elected, other issues would be more pressing and he'd never be held accountable for failing to deliver. Conservatives are surely familiar with candidate Bush's promise during the 2000 presidential race to veto McCain-Feingold, only to see him sign the law as president.
Nevertheless, Romney's pledge would carry some weight if he had a past record of opposing campaign finance reform. However, as is evident in this video, in his 1994 Senate campaign, Romney supported campaign spending limits and the abolition of political action committees -- measures far more drastic than McCain-Feingold. In 2002, he supported taxing political contributions at 10 percent to help publicly fund campaigns.
Romney has also recently gone after Rudy Giuliani. "He is pro-choice, and pro-gay marriage, and anti-gun, and that's a tough combination in a Republican primary," Romney said of Giuliani in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.
While we know that Giuliani is pro-choice (he's willing to be up front about it), it's inaccurate to categorize Giuliani's position as pro-gay marriage. Since as far back as 1989, Giuliani has publicly opposed gay marriage. He has supported, and still supports, domestic partnerships as a way to give same-sex couples rights, but believes marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Giuliani opposes a Federal Marriage Amendment, because he believes that the matter should be left up to the states. In attacking McCain for a similar position last November, Romney said: "Look, if somebody says they're in favor of gay marriage, I respect that view. If someone says -- like I do -- that I oppose same-sex marriage, I respect that view. But those who try and pretend to have it both ways, I find it to be disingenuous."
In 1994, Romney agreed that gay marriage should be a state issue, and as recently as last month, favored deciding the abortion issue at the state level instead of taking a federal "one-size-fits-all" approach. So in other words, he finds federalism "disingenuous" when it involves allowing same-sex marriage, but he supports states' rights to allow abortion, which, as an "evolved" pro-lifer, he views as killing.
It is also ironic that Romney would attack Giuliani as being anti-gun. While there is certainly a lot to criticize in Giuliani's record from the National Rifle Association's perspective, such criticism is a bit -- shall we say -- disingenuous coming from Romney.
In 1994, Romney supported the Brady Bill as well as the federal ban on assault weapons. He remarked that, "That's not going to make me the hero of the NRA." In 2004, when the federal ban expired, then-Governor Romney enthusiastically signed a permanent ban on assault weapons in Massachusetts.
In his current campaign, Romney has presented himself as a friend of gun owners, and to prove it, he became a lifetime member of the NRA seven months ago. However, when pressed, he still won't clarify what his actual position is on regulating guns. When I had the opportunity to speak with Romney at CPAC last Friday, I asked him whether now, as a member of the NRA, he would sign or veto federal legislation banning assault weapons if he were president.
In a Kerry-esque response, Romney told me: "My position is the same as it has been, which is I support the Second Amendment, but I also support (an) assault weapon ban." He added that: "The specifics of the particular ban are something I'd have to look at, and it's been a long time since we've looked at the particular types of weapons that might be involved." (The full transcript of my exchange can be read here.)
Some may argue that this is a perfectly valid answer at this point in the campaign. But if Romney, with a public pro-gun control record dating back to 1994, wants to be able to attack an opponent for being anti-gun, he should have the guts to rule out the idea of imposing new federal restrictions on gun owners.
Supporters of Romney argue that his past stances are not as important as long as he is saying the right things now. Isn't at least saying that you're pro-life better than being openly pro-choice? Isn't being a member of the NRA better than not being a member? Isn't being an opponent of campaign finance reform better than being a supporter of it?
There are several problems with this line of reasoning. It's one thing if Romney changed his position on a single issue such as abortion, which a lot of politicians have trouble navigating. However, Romney has changed his mind on so much, so soon, that it raises doubts about anything that he promises to do as president. The only thing that's consistent about his rather thin public record is that he always takes the position that is most politically expedient at the time. Right now, he's saying what he needs to to win the Republican nomination, but what happens when he's no longer beholden to conservative primary voters?
Conservatives cannot look to Romney's single term as governor to get any indication of how he'd serve as commander in chief during a time of war. Sure, right now, he's talking tough. But given his history of shifting positions on other important issues, there's no reason to be confident that as leader of the war on terror, he would stand firm in the face of intense pressure from the media, the Democrats, and advisers armed with public opinion polls.
Last month, the Boston Globe reported on a leaked internal Romney campaign memo written by strategist Alex Castellanos: "the plan lists two ways Romney can set himself apart from Bush. The first says, simply, 'Intelligence.'" If Romney's transparent deceptions are any indication, in addition to thinking our president is dumb, his campaign must consider conservatives to be a bunch of morons, too.
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