With Saturday’s conservative-dominated Iowa straw poll nearing, Mitt Romney is frantically trying to convince the G.O.P. grassroots that his well-timed conversion from pro-choice Massachusetts moderate to devoted anti-abortion conservative was sincere, and not motivated by his ambition to play on the national Republican stage.
I was not always pro-life,” he told The New York Times this week, “but I’m proud I made the same discovery that Ronald Reagan did and Henry Hyde and George Herbert Walker Bush.”
Mr. Romney is politically smart to wrap his transformation in the conversions of those G.O.P. lions. But his 13-year public career tells a different story. His shift on abortion (like so many other topics) was not the product of a dramatic, come-to-Jesus “discovery,” but rather the last in a series of flip-flops that saw him spout wildly different rhetoric depending on his audience. If one story sums up his abortion history, it’s his sojourn in Utah, where he lived from 1999 until the conclusion of the 2002 Winter Olympics, which he’d been recruited to rescue from scandal and mismanagement.
The post was officially non-political, but a job well done would dramatically enhance his future political prospects. Sure enough, by the summer of 2001, favorable reviews had already made him a statewide celebrity in Utah. Talk of a Romney gubernatorial campaign in 2004 sprouted, pushed by some of Mr. Romney’s influential friends – and Mitt himself, who publicly declared that, after the games, he would survey his political options in both Massachusetts and Utah.
It’s now hard to imagine the ambitious Mr. Romney opting to restart his political career in Utah and not Massachusetts, a bigger state where a victory by a Republican is treated by the national media as a very big deal. But at 54 years old in ’01—and seven years removed from his 17-point loss to Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts—he had to think pragmatically. The 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial race might be off-limits, since the interim G.O.P. Governor, Jane Swift, was planning to run (and had yet to epically implode). The 2004 governor’s race in Utah, though, would probably be open for him.
He sought to preserve his political options in both states, taking steps so that he could plausibly claim residency in either, depending on what he decided when the games wrapped up.
Abortion, though, presented a formidable obstacle. In Massachusetts, he had famously invoked his mother and the story of a relative who had died from a botched back alley abortion to convince the state’s socially liberal electorate that he was pro-choice. But even the hint of such rhetoric would sink him in Utah, where G.O.P. nominations are essentially awarded through a state convention dominated by fanatical abortion foes.
And so, not for the first time, Mitt set about shifting his public posture on abortion. After the Salt Lake Tribune wrote about Mitt’s stated interest in political office in Utah – and singled out his abortion position as problematic at any state G.O.P. convention—he responded with a cryptic letter to the editor. “I do not wish to be labeled pro-choice,” he wrote, words that instantly breathed life into the Romney-for-Governor-of-Utah talk.
Mr. Romney elaborated no further in the letter, citing his non-political Olympics role—but one his closest friends (who now bundles money for the Romney presidential campaign) told the Tribune that Mitt’s Massachusetts abortion rhetoric had been “a carefully crafted position intended to sound more firm than it was,” as the paper put it.
By keeping his letter to the editor vague, Mr. Romney kept his options alive in both liberal Massachusetts and conservative Utah. And as it turned out, Governor Swift’s administration unraveled in Massachusetts, and when the Olympics wrapped up in February 2002, the Bay State’s G.O.P. begged Mitt—awash in glowing national press coverage—to come home and rescue them.
And when he returned, he promptly downplayed his half-step to the pro-life side, returning to the passionate pro-choice pleadings that he had espoused before but had muted in Utah. He began bringing up his mother again, praising her “courage” for speaking pro-choice language in the pre-Roe era and promised the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League that he would “respect and will support a woman’s right to choose.”
Just like now, his sincerity came into question. And just like now, he feigned exasperation. In ’02, he told his Democratic opponent, Shannon O’Brien, that it was “unbecoming” of her to suggest he had been less than forthcoming on his abortion views. Last week, when the consistently pro-life Sam Brownback raised the same concern, Mr. Romney harrumphed that “I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they’ve been pro-life longer than I have.”
But the question Mitt Romney has to answer now should not be how long he has been pro-life, or how long he was pro-choice before that. It’s a more basic one: Is it ever possible to tell which of his positions is real?