The Two Faces of Mitt Romney

121106 article wiseguys The Two Faces of Mitt RomneyTo no one’s surprise, departing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist excused himself from the Presidential race last week, joining soon-to-be-former Senators George Allen and Rick Santorum as onetime Great Right Hopes who have been forced into bystander roles for ’08.

In the category of credible Republican candidates, that leaves John McCain, the front-runner whose prospects are contingent on making peace with the right without alienating his mainstream base, and America’s Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, who might be unstoppable in a general election if his social liberalism ever allows him to get through the primary.

And then there’s Willard (Mitt) Romney, the governor of Massachusetts who wisely declined to seek a second term as governor this year—the better to avoid the kind of home-state electoral drubbing that just felled Messrs. Santorum and Allen. Mr. Romney is running as a doctrinaire conservative, the true believer’s safe haven from the heresy of his rivals.

He’s trying, essentially, to replicate George W. Bush’s 2000 game plan, when the Texas Governor derailed Mr. McCain with charges of counterfeit conservatism.

So far, it’s working: Mr. Romney’s numbers have grown as he’s traveled the ’08 circuit, introducing himself to the G.O.P.’s grassroots folk as a kindred spirit, a frustrated and solitary voice of conservative common sense in mindlessly hedonistic Massachusetts.

And it may continue to work—unless anyone bothers to read up on the first 57 or so years of the 59-year-old Mr. Romney’s life. Because what is common knowledge in Cambridge and Groton could sink him in Council Bluffs and Grinnell: Either Mr. Romney was faking it then, or he’s faking it now.

Consider that Mr. Romney burst onto the Massachusetts political scene during the national G.O.P. revolution of 1994, when he ran a fleetingly competitive campaign against Senator Edward M. Kennedy—who was facing the voters for the first time after testifying at his nephew’s rape trial. The Mitt Romney that voters are getting to know this year would doubtless have contrasted his rock-ribbed conservative principles with the Senator’s tired and often incoherent Great Society aphorisms.

But that’s not what happened.

Here is Mr. Romney, from his first debate with Mr. Kennedy, on the subject of abortion:

“Many years ago,” he intoned, “I had a dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion. It is since that time [that] my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter.”

He continued: “And you will not see me wavering on that.”

The Romney line in ’08, of course, is that he was never avowedly pro-abortion-rights, but rather that he was merely disinclined to tamper with existing state law.

During the same campaign, Mr. Romney assured gay voters that, “as we seek to establish full equality for America’s gay and lesbian citizens, I will provide more effective leadership than my opponent.” Keep in mind: His opponent was Ted Kennedy.

Now, of course, Mr. Romney is doing all he can to overturn gay marriage, which was legalized in Massachusetts in 2004. Within the state, the initial furor has long ago evaporated, and even Republicans in the State Legislature have dropped their efforts to outlaw it. But Republicans in South Carolina are still in a lather, so Mr. Romney is too.

In less ideologically charged policy areas, Mr. Romney has systematically sacrificed his reformer credentials to national political expediency.

Take the case of Douglas Foy, a former president of the Conservation Law Foundation. Mr. Romney, upon winning the governorship in 2002, deputized Mr. Foy to develop an environmentally friendly “smart growth” blueprint for the commonwealth.

It seemed a perfect illustration of why the state’s independent suburbanites had flocked to Mr. Romney: A machine Democrat would have made a patronage pick, while a right-winger would have sought out a James Inhofe clone.

Mr. Foy didn’t disappoint, promptly teaming with counterparts throughout the Northeast to create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a miniature Kyoto Accord aimed at stemming carbon-dioxide emissions.

Then Mr. Romney made up his mind to go national—and suddenly, Mr. Foy’s work reeked of Al Gore–ism. So the governor, unlike his five fellow governors, refused to sign onto the agreement and pushed Mr. Foy out.

But that’s Willard Romney: He could have been an exceptional, ideologically independent governor, just as he could have been the real-deal conservative he now appears to be. It’s just a pity that he didn’t pick one face and stick with it.