When the Watergate scandal exploded in the mid-1970’s and the nation turned on its president, a peculiar bumper sticker began appearing on the Saabs and Volvos of the Greater Boston area: Framed by an outline of the state of Massachusetts, its message simply declared, “We told you so!” Ridiculed just a few years earlier for siding with peacenik George McGovern, Massachusetts was giving itself a pat on the back for seeing through Richard Nixon when no other state did.
Maybe Shannon O’Brien, the state’s former treasurer, should consider fashioning her own “I told you so” car accessory.
Five years ago, Ms. O’Brien was the Democratic nominee for governor of Massachusetts. Her opponent was Mitt Romney, who, fresh from his Olympic organizing public relations triumph, had adopted a platform—flexibly conservative on fiscal issues, environment-friendly, and liberal on social issues—that just so happened to mesh perfectly with the independent-minded suburbanites who swing elections in the Bay State. Ms. O’Brien, then a 43-year-old moderate who’d won praise for whipping the scandal-devastated State Treasury back into shape, warned that he didn’t mean much of what he was saying, particularly when it came to abortion rights. Not many people listened to her.
Not halfway through Mr. Romney’s single term in office, her predictions began coming true. One by one, the governor moved away from the positions he embraced in 2002, until finally he was traveling the country pitching himself as a family values conservative and delighting right-wing audiences with jokes at his home state’s expense. By the eve of the 2006 gubernatorial election, Mr. Romney—who’d opted not to run again—was viewed favorably by just 35 percent of Massachusetts voters. (By contrast, the Democrat who won that election, Deval Patrick, scored a 60-24 percent favorable rating in the same poll.) Proudly prescient Massachusetts had egg on its face: It had been used.
Now, the man who once whispered sweet nothings to liberal Massachusetts is wooing conservatives in Iowa and South Carolina by channeling Jesse Helms. Once again, some of his foes are asking whether he really means any of it. And once again—to believe the polls that have Mr. Romney ahead by double-digits in several early states—the protests are falling on deaf ears.
Back in Massachusetts, Ms. O’Brien, who now runs the Girl Scouts organization for Greater Boston and is supporting Hillary Clinton for president, said that even she’s surprised by the transformation.
“I totally discounted Romney when there was first talk of him running for president,” she said in a recent interview in the cafe of the Jurys Hotel in Boston. “And my point was, ‘Those conservatives will kill him. They’ll never vote for him.’ Well, guess what? He’s flipped every single position that would offend them, and—and I’m not the first person to say this—because many of the Republicans tend to be perhaps a little more evangelical, a little more appreciative of redemption and turning yourself around, he’s been able to walk away from that.”
But there’s something else to Mr. Romney’s appeal, a phenomenon that Ms. O’Brien witnessed during her own campaign and that is at work now: Mr. Romney knows how to make an exceedingly good first impression, one that has everything to do with personality and nothing to do with ideology. The effect, very often, is that his target voters want to like him. And because of that, they give him the benefit of the doubt when the sincerity of his political convictions is later called into question.
For Ms. O’Brien, this became clear in their climactic debate, a late October showdown in 2002. Just weeks earlier, Ms. O’Brien’s lead had been approaching double digits, but by debate night the contest was dead even. The television audience was large. Tim Russert was called in to moderate. The most dramatic moment came when the topic turned to abortion—a litmus test issue for the socially liberal bedroom community dwellers who would decide the election.
On paper, Mr. Romney’s position was far from clear. He’d run for the Senate in 1994 and in the early days of that race—when it looked like he’d face a stiff primary fight with a self-funding pro-choice Republican—he’d accepted an endorsement from the Massachusetts Citizens for Life. But he quickly distanced himself from it and ran against Ted Kennedy as a proud abortion-rights supporter. A few years later, though, he found himself in Utah, running the Olympics and flirting with running for office there after the Games. In the process, he wrote a letter to a Utah newspaper disavowing the pro-choice label, but saying little else. Finally, he returned to Massachusetts to run in 2002—and re-embraced his old pro-choice ways.
Ms. O’Brien failed to parlay these inconsistencies into a sense of alarm among those watching the debate.