If the recent cover stories in National Review and the Weekly Standard are any indication, conservative opinion-mongers are taken with the idea of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney running for president in 2008. But, given his record of triangulation on abortion, will pro-life voters be equally enthusiastic?
The answer will help determine the viability of Romney's candidacy. Not since Gerald Ford narrowly beat back Ronald Reagan's challenge at the 1976 Republican National Convention has the GOP had a pro-choice presidential nominee. Abortion advocacy reduced 1990s Republican rising stars Bill Weld and Christine Todd Whitman from vying for a place on the party's national ticket to competing for space in bookstore discount racks (although Weld at least had the decency to stick to novels and spare us the lectures).
GOP pro-choicers who want to be president can try loudly proclaiming their socially progressive credentials and promising to rescue the party from the religious right. This was the path trod by Sen. Arlen Specter and Gov. Pete Wilson in 1996 and neither managed to make it to the Iowa caucuses. Or they can follow the example of George H.W. Bush. He switched to the pro-life side during the 1980 campaign and ended up on the next four GOP tickets and in the Oval Office.
Romney quite sensibly appears to be opting for the latter course. He described himself to USA Today as "personally pro-life" and "in a different place" than he was when he averred that "abortion should be safe and legal" during his 1994 race against Sen. Ted Kennedy. John J. Miller reported in National Review that in the event of a Romney presidential bid, "he's almost certain to run as an avowed pro-lifer."
The theory is that pro-lifers welcome conversions. But in a party where social conservatives are stronger today than in 1980, they also value authenticity. Ronald Reagan may have signed a bill liberalizing California's abortion laws, but he didn't for a decade repeatedly affirm his support for Roe v. Wade as Romney has. Can the Bay State governor satisfy doubters?
His current approach needs some work. Romney claims that as governor of a pro-choice state, he has observed a "moratorium" on abortion policy. Thus, he has not allowed abortion restrictions to be loosened -- such as when his 2002 Democratic rival Shannon O'Brien called for 16-year-olds to be able to obtain abortions without parental consent -- or tightened.
But Romney never spoke of a moratorium during the 2002 campaign. This new framing of the issue emerged only after the conservative press began covering him as a possible presidential contender. In his previous races, Romney has positioned himself as pro-choice but slightly to the right of his Democratic opponents on abortion. This has been true since 1994, when he ran for the U.S. Senate as a pro-Roe candidate with the backing of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
Indeed, "muddled" is more often used to describe Romney's abortion views than "moratorium." "The predictable result," the columnist Jeff Jacoby explained, "is that Romney has always been distrusted by prochoice and prolife activists."
That distrust has, perhaps inadvertently, been enhanced by comments to the press by certain friends of Mitt. Political consultant Mike Murphy landed on the front page of the Boston Globe when he said Romney was "faking it" as pro-choice, while personal friend Kem Gardner told the Salt Lake Tribune that the governor was "waffling" due to the Bay State political climate. Both subsequently retracted their claims.
In any event, it's hard to see how either talk of a moratorium or conflicting accounts of Romney's abortion views from those closest to him will motivate pro-lifers. For those who take the issue most seriously, actions speak more loudly than confusing words.
GOP aspirants who have tried nuanced appeals to pro-lifers don't have an impressive track record. Pete DuPont, for instance, ran in 1988 as a personally pro-choice candidate who nevertheless advocated overturning Roe. In 1996, Lamar Alexander -- like Romney, a centrist governor with a pro-choice record -- also vowed to send abortion back to the states and adopted the pro-life descriptor. Both positions might have carried more weight had he actually campaigned in favor of rescinding Roe.
It's also possible to overdo outreach to pro-lifers. In 1996, Steve Forbes ran as the flat-tax candidate who favored popular abortion restrictions but didn't talk much about the issue. Four years later, the publishing magnate was saying that banning abortion was a higher priority for him than cutting taxes. The change in emphasis probably gained him more activist endorsements than primary votes. Marginal tax rates weren't flattened, but Forbes's 2000 campaign was.
Romney still has time to avoid these missteps, and once freed from the competing claims of red-meat Republicans and Massachusetts blue-staters he may be able to formulate a less ambiguous position. And unlike the abortion squishes who came before him, Romney is likely to face a field with few strong pro-lifers at the top. It's hard to imagine Rudy Giuliani or John McCain taking as hard a line on embryonic stem-cell research.
Mitt Romney is gaining fans among movement conservatives in Washington. But more important is whether he can win pro-life votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
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