Slick Willard: Romney Shuffles Through Des Moines Debate

Note the talking points he used in Sunday’s debate: He became pro-life because of concerns over human cloning. Every action he took as governor was “pro-life.” He was feted by a leading pro-life organization. In a later answer, he even alluded to his earlier, pro-choice pleadings as his biggest personal mistake—except, as he always does, he only allowed that he had been “effectively pro-choice” before declaring himself pro-life, stressing that he’d always been “deeply opposed” to the practice and that his prior position merely involved support for “upholding the existing law.”

So much for the tear-jerker about his dead relative.

But there were other problems with his debate narrative.

First, the notion that he changed his position because of human cloning—and not his impending run for the presidency—has already been debunked. Yes, the cloning question was raised in Massachusetts in 2004 and 2005, but the full story he tells on the campaign trail is that the trigger-point in his conversion was a visit from a pro-cloning Harvard scientist, whose cavalier attitude toward human life supposedly shook Mitt to the core. The scientist, who is not active in politics, has vehemently denied Mitt’s version of the meeting. It was a one-on-on-meeting, so the scientist’s objections are left to the realm of he said/she said—and surely Mitt knows that, with social conservatives, he’ll always win a war of words with a faceless “Harvard scientist.”

Mr. Romney’s mention of the Boston Globe op-ed was also noteworthy. Yes, Mitt did use that forum to establish officially his new pro-life position, but it was months after his supposed meeting with the Harvard scientist. More to the point, it followed a prolonged and painful period of rhetorical dancing on the abortion subject, as Team Romney struggled to balance the conflicting imperatives of political survival in Massachusetts and his burgeoning national ambitions. It was in this period—in the spring of 2005 – that he began downplaying his previous pro-choice position, arguing that he’d merely favored “upholding the existing law.” The publication of his op-ed was taken as the death of his Massachusetts political career and the de facto announcement of candidacy for President—and lo and behold, within months Mr. Romney declined to seek a second gubernatorial term in 2006, a move that essentially handed Massachusetts’ governorship back to the Democrats for the first time since the Dukakis days.

As for his “award” from the Massachusetts Citizens for Life—that boast, too, would benefit from some context. Mr. Romney began his Massachusetts political career in 1994, and his posturing put him at odds with MCFL, a group often relegated to the fringes of Massachusetts’ political debate, for most of his dozen years in the state—including in his two statewide campaigns. Then, late last year he cut MCFL a check for $15,000—just in time to make sure its leaders would affirm his conversion story as he announced his presidential campaign. And a few months later, MCFL happily presented its big donor with the award that he now touts whenever his credentials on abortion are questioned—like in Sunday’s debate.

Mitt Romney may be the only politician to move a state to tears with a story about an innocent family member dying because of this country’s once-restrictive abortion laws—and then to turn around and argue that, on second thought, that relative was actually committing murder.

A new book by a professor of psychology at Emory University argues that voters, even while convincing themselves that they are policy-centric in their political decision-making, are really driven by their personal reactions to candidates. When they like one, they will rationalize just about any disagreement they have with that politician or any inconsistency in that politician’s message. And when they don’t feel so warm about a politician, they won’t be moved even if that politician sees eye to eye with them on every issue.

And so it is that the Republican voters of Iowa are flocking to Mitt Romney—and giving Sam Brownback the cold shoulder.