Most media coverage of last Thursday’s GOP debate has focused on the war of words fought by the two front runners, but the crucial exchange of the evening didn’t occur between Gingrich and Romney. The most telling moment of the debate was the latter’s response to Rick Santorum’s eloquent explanation of Obamacare’s importance to the GOP’s strategy in the general election and why giving Romney the nomination would be tantamount to surrendering the high ground on health reform: “Folks, we can’t give this issue away in this election. It is about fundamental freedom.” The former Massachusetts governor responded with the usual rote talking points, which Santorum vehemently rejected. Romney then uttered the most revealing words of the debate: “First of all, it’s not worth getting angry about.”
Most Republican voters, and more than a few independents, would disagree. Romney apparently didn’t notice that the hundreds of thousands of people who showed up at the nation’s capitol to protest the impending passage of Obamacare were pretty angry. In fact, after the law was passed over their vehement objections, a significant portion of the voters were so outraged by the back-room skullduggery used to pass “reform” that many Democrats were actually afraid to hold town hall meetings and face their own constituents during the run-up to the 2010 midterms. Moreover, despite the many whoppers told by the President’s accomplices in the media about the “anti-incumbent mood” of the electorate, the drubbing the Democrats received in that election was obviously driven by voter indignation about being force-fed Obamacare.
And the anger remains. That is why Obama’s recent State of the Union address contained only three references to his “signature domestic achievement.” This is, as Michael Barone puts it, “the strongest evidence possible” that the President sees Obamacare as “a millstone around the neck of his campaign.” Thus, he and his minions will not have missed the significance of Romney’s prissy rebuke of Santorum’s passionate plea not to “give this issue away.” They no doubt recognized it as a Freudian slip betraying Romney as a man without real convictions, and realize that this is the source of his countless flip-flops. In the art of politics, as in the art of war, the key to victory is knowledge of one’s enemy. Having cut their political teeth in Chicago, the President’s men know a trimmer when they see one and what it takes to defeat him.
The only real difference between Romney and Obama’s long-ago-vanquished opponents is that the Chi-town pols were less amateurish. Romney’s reversals of position have been so frequent and transparently self-serving that a moderately intelligent preschooler could see through them. Health reform is Exhibit A. When running against Ted Kennedy for the Senate in 1994, Romney represented himself as the champion of a free market health system: “I do not believe in a government takeover of the healthcare system.” After becoming Governor of Massachusetts, however, his position changed so radically that he signed a health reform law that later became the model for Obamacare. Now, he claims to oppose Obama’s version of the plan, though the two laws are identical in all important respects.
Romney would also have us believe that he will repeal Obamacare in its entirety. He has made this claim in virtually every Republican debate. During his exchange with Santorum on Thursday, for example, he phrased it thus: “It’s bad medicine, it’s bad for the economy, and I will repeal it.” Predictably, this differs from what he said immediately after the law was passed: “I hope we’re ultimately able to… repeal the bad and keep the good.” It also conflicts with what his people are saying even now. During a recent interview one of Romney’s most important advisors said, “We’re not going to do repeal… but you will see major changes… You can’t whole-cloth throw it out. But you can substantially change what’s been done.” This is no more than the President and the Democrats themselves have promised.
Romney’s affinity with Democrat positions has not been limited to health reform, of course. He has, for example, often agreed with them on Second Amendment rights. While running for Governor of Massachusetts in 2002 he repeatedly stated that he supported that state’s tough gun laws. And, in 2004, he famously signed into law a ban on so-called assault weapons and even certain types of shotguns. By the time he had begun his first presidential campaign, however, his views had “evolved.” In a 2007 speech to the NRA, he declared, “I support the Second Amendment as one of the most basic and fundamental rights of every American.” During his current bid for the presidency, Romney has dodged gun control questions in the debates and his campaign website offers no hint as to his position du jour.
Perhaps the most egregious of Romney’s one-eighties have involved abortion. He has changed his position on that issue at least three times. During the 1994 Senate race against Kennedy he said, “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country.” In 2001, however, he published a letter in The Salt Lake Tribune in which he wrote, “I do not wish to be labeled prochoice.” If the “evolution” had stopped there, many would accept what could well have been a genuine change of heart. But when he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002 he declared, “I will protect the right of a woman to choose under the law of the country and the laws of the Commonwealth.” Now, for purposes of his current presidential campaign, he’s again “pro-life.” How he avoids vertigo while executing so many pirouettes is anyone’s guess.
Presumably, Romney would admonish us that his about-faces are “not worth getting angry about.” That may be the one thing he really believes. What he and his supporters in the GOP establishment don’t get, however, is that real voters take these things very seriously. Those who vote based on abortion and gun rights are justifiably angered by politicians who make promises about which they forget the day after being elected. When Rick Santorum’s tone during last Thursday’s debate betrayed annoyance at Romney’s health care contortions, it was because he actually cares about the threat to basic liberty presented by Obamacare. It’s not an easy thing for a man of genuine principle to tolerate an opportunist like Romney, who obviously sees the issue as just another lever that he can use to hoist himself into public office.
It will, however, be very easy for Obama and his creatures to exploit Romney’s flip-flops in the general election. They will make sure the voters understand that these reversals reveal Romney as just another unprincipled politician willing to say anything to win the election. That the President himself is cut of the same cloth won’t matter. The reporters and bloggers whose job it is to point that out will be dutifully reciting White House talking points. One wonders if, after his resultant loss in November, Romney will find this “worth getting angry about.”