It was about eleven years ago when an acquaintance phoned to share his impression of a debate between Mitt Romney and Ted Kennedy, then locked in a tight Senate race. His verdict: "Romney was good, but I think he might be more conservative than he let on. He seemed to be holding back."
There's a complicated dance Republicans must do to be competitive in Massachusetts. They run to the right on issues where the swelling ranks of independent voters are distrustful of Democrats: taxes, crime, capital punishment and welfare. But they must never vex the editorialists at the Boston Globe by violating the most sacred liberal taboos, especially the prohibition against nonliberal stands on abortion and other causes of interest to values voters.
For most of his intermittent political career and especially during his tenure as Bay State governor, Romney has observed these conventions. He is pro-choice and, aside from the marriage debate, generally in agreement with gay-rights advocates. Yet there persists the sense that he's been holding back. Romney's recent stem-cell maneuver has social conservatives nationwide hoping these suspicions prove well founded.
In an interview with the New York Times, Romney came out against research being planned at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute that would involve therapeutic cloning. While Democratic Massachusetts Senate President Robert Travaglini was introducing legislation to promote embryonic stem-cell research, the governor was proposing a ban, enforced through criminal and civil penalties, on creating human embryos for research purposes.
Although Romney's position on embryonic stem-cell research is actually to the left of President Bush's -- he favors research on embryos obtained from in-vitro fertilization clinics provided that parents give their written permission, receive no financial compensation and are told of other options that won't result in the embryos' deliberate destruction -- he won praise from many pro-life conservatives. Kathryn Jean Lopez applauded the governor's stand in National Review Online, while acknowledging it was a "non-ideal (from the pro-life vantage point) but pragmatic compromise." Writing in his syndicated column, Cal Thomas commended Romney for standing "on principle" and putting "more noble things ahead of self-interest." Mitt also won favorable press from Laura Ingraham and the web edition of Weekly Standard.
MORE CYNICAL OBSERVERS SUSPECT Romney has his eyes on 2008. If he were to run for president, he would obviously need to appeal to Republican primary voters well to the right of the Massachusetts electorate. "In long years of taking stands tailored to their state, Democrats Mike Dukakis and John Kerry clearly hurt their national chances," opined the Globe's Scott Lehigh. "Comfortable locally, Bill Weld's social liberalism rendered him persona non grata with a wide swath of the national Republican Party."
Why else would Romney suddenly decide to stake out this controversial position now, when it is not likely to help him win re-election in 2006? He even faces more difficult terrain in the state legislature, since pro-life Thomas Finneran has retired and been replaced as house speaker by pro-choice Salvatore DiMasi.
In fact, Romney has always had a complicated relationship with pro-lifers. His run against Kennedy in 1994, his first candidacy for public office, was characterized by debate and confusion over his stand on abortion. He accepted an endorsement from Massachusetts Citizens for Life while vying for the Republican nomination. But he declared himself to have been pro-choice even before Roe v. Wade, having joined his mother in support of legal abortion during her failed 1970 Senate bid from Michigan.
Romney retained the Massachusetts Citizens for Life endorsement because he supported parental-consent laws, opposed taxpayer-funded abortion or mandatory abortion coverage under a national health insurance plan and was against the Freedom of Choice Act that would have codified Roe (later in the campaign, he said might be willing to support another version of the legislation).
NARAL's Kate Michelman pronounced him a phony pro-choicer. "Mitt Romney, stop pretending," she demanded at a press conference. "We need honesty in our public life, not your campaign of deception to conceal your anti-choice views." Janet Jeghelian, one of Romney's vanquished rivals for the GOP senatorial nomination, accused him of "talking out both sides of his mouth" on abortion (she has since become convinced of his pro-choice bona fides). Don Feder, on the other hand, dismissed Romney in his Boston Herald column for offering social conservatives "thin gruel."
After his loss to Kennedy, there were reports that Romney might transplant his political career to Utah, where he would run the 2002 Winter Olympics. In 2001, he declared in a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune, "I do not wish to be labeled pro-choice." He went on to write, "Abortion is the wrong choice, but under the law it is a choice people have." Kem Gardner, a personal friend, told the Tribune that Romney had to exaggerate his liberalism on the abortion issue because he was running in the Bay State: "To have any chance at all, he was waffling." (Gardner later told the Boston Globe that he had erred, presuming to know Romney's abortion views based on their shared Mormon beliefs rather than anything the candidate had ever told him.)
Predictably, all this came back to haunt Romney when he returned to Massachusetts to run for governor. His Democratic gubernatorial rival Shannon O'Brien characterized his abortion position as "flip-flop-flip." He fired back with characteristic nuance: "On a personal basis, I don't favor abortion. However, as governor of the commonwealth, I will protect the right of a woman to choose under the law of the country and the laws of the commonwealth."
His campaign spokesman characterized this stance as "exactly the same position as any other pro-choice politician." Except, that is, for some minor modifications. Romney came out against lowering the age at which minors could obtain abortions without parental consent to 16 (O'Brien took the opposite position) and for a ban on partial-birth abortion.
SO IS ROMNEY'S STEM-CELL position just the latest in a series of efforts to triangulate pro-life issues, this time with an eye on a bigger prize than Massachusetts statewide office? It's difficult to avoid this conclusion, but there are some counterarguments.
When the centrist Mormon politician does take socially conservative positions, whether on stem cells or gay marriage, he does so with an eloquence lacking in many professional Christian-right activists. His wife suffers from multiple sclerosis -- would the family man really want to play politics with research with even a theoretical chance of helping her? Finally, his letter to the Salt Lake Tribune and some of his other abortion statements sound as much like someone trying to wrestle with the issue as someone trying to weasel his way out of it.
As the 2008 GOP nomination contest approaches, many Americans will be watching to see if Mitt Romney is another abortion waffler, or if he has just been holding back all these years.
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