Mitt Romney is proving true the old adage about public speaking—that what you say matters less than how you say it.
The former Massachusetts Governor was at it again on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 5, when, hours after a new Washington Post poll confirmed his front-running position in Iowa, the nine Republican presidential candidates met for a nationally-televised forum in Des Moines—their final gathering before next Saturday’s straw poll in Ames, which Mr. Romney is expected to win with ease.
To his foes on the right, Mr. Romney’s growing strength in lead-off Iowa, where the G.O.P. caucus—going electorate is dominated by religious conservatives, has been maddening, given that his public commitment to socially conservative causes dates back (conveniently) to about 2005, when he switched his political focus from liberal Massachusetts to the national Republican stage.
But an exchange this morning featuring Mr. Romney and Sam Brownback, the ardently anti-abortion Kansas Senator who is still trying to break five percent in polls while Mr. Romney approaches 30, demonstrated why Mr. Romney, with his fresh face, million dollar incisors and generally unflappable demeanor, has enjoyed such success in selling the right on the depth of his commitment to their cause.
George Stephanopoulos, who moderated the debate for ABC News (which aired it nationally in a 9:00 A.M. time slot that probably conflicted with many caucus voters’ church-going habits), raised a “robo-call” that Mr. Brownback’s campaign has been using in Iowa, which states the following:
As late as 2005, Mitt Romney pledged to support and uphold pro-abortion policies and passed taxpayer funding of abortions in Massachusetts. His wife Ann has contributed money to Planned Parenthood. Mitt told the National Abortion Rights Action League that “you need someone like me in Washington.”
Mr. Brownback took the opportunity to affirm his own “pro-life” and “whole life” ideology, and then Mr. Romney was asked for his response to the phone call.
“Virtually nothing in that ad is true,” he asserted. “The single word that I would use is ‘desperate,’ or perhaps ‘negative.’”
Mr. Stephanopoulos then interjected to ask what specifically was inaccurate in the call, and Mr. Romney didn’t so much as stammer as he plowed into his usual talking points.
“I am pro-life—that’s the truth,” he said. “And several years ago when we faced the issue of cloning of embryos in our state, I wrote an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe and said I’m pro-life. And every action I’ve taken as Governor of Massachusetts has been pro-life. This is a very difficult decision. We’re involved in the lives of two people—a mom and an unborn child. And yet I’ve come down on the side of saying I’m in favor of life.”
Again, Mr. Stephanopoulos cut in to inquire how specifically the robo-call had been inaccurate.
“The Massachusetts Citizens for Life,” Mr. Romney replied, “just several months ago, brought me in and gave me an award for my public leadership on the basis of being pro-life.”
Then, for good measure, he added: “The best way you can learn about someone is not by asking their opponent, but ask them, ‘What do you believe and what’s your view?’ And I am pro-life and virtually every part of that ad is inaccurate.”
And with that, Mitt got away with having it both ways. There are enough holes and inconsistencies in the pro-life conversion story he peddles to insult the intelligence of every honest social conservative in America—and yet he is able to cover these gaping holes with the magnetic power of his personal presentation.
For the record, Mitt did not point to a single flaw in the Brownback phone call, just as his soliloquy ignored some vital contextual information that would expose the blatantly political machinations in Mitt’s two decades of twisting an turning on abortion (among other issues).
Mr. Romney did not mention, for instance, that in previously seeking office in Massachusetts, he looked hundreds of thousands of voters in the eye – on live, statewide television—and told them that he had lost a family member to an illegal, pre-Roe abortion, and that he had sworn from that point on that abortion was no business of any government. Nor did he say on Sunday, as he happily did in Massachusetts, that his own mother was his political hero – for supporting abortion rights when she ran for office in Michigan in the years before Roe.
Mr. Romney convinced the Bay State’s socially liberal electorate that he was pro-choice through the power of his personality—with heart-wrenching anecdotes and his earnest, camera-friendly manner. Now, with this presidential hopes in the hands of social conservatives, he uses the same techniques to gloss over his pro-choice past and to sell a new heart-wrenching narrative: his “conversion” story.
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.