Ronald Reagan was once a very liberal man, a union president who abhorred Taft-Hartley and right-to-work laws and an ardent believer in F.D.R., the New Deal and federal civil rights legislation.
Then, somewhere in the 1950’s, he experienced a remarkable ideological awakening, shook off his leftist ways and swore allegiance to the then-emerging doctrine of American conservatism. By the time he was lowered into the earth in 2004, Reagan was the undisputed patron saint of the political right.
So the fact that he’d campaigned for Democrat Harry Truman in 1948 never hurt Reagan among his fellow Republicans when he ran for office. He told them he was a changed man, and they had no reason to doubt him. After all, it’s the converts who make the best preachers.
Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani can only wish it were this easy for them.
Both are selling themselves as Reagan conservatives, and like the former president, they both have sympathized with past Democratic presidential candidates. Mr. Romney, a registered independent until December 1993, actually voted in the 1992 Massachusetts Democratic primary for Paul Tsongas—a fact he proudly advertised when he sought office in G.O.P.-averse Massachusetts. And Mr. Giuliani, as a 29-year-old assistant U.S. attorney, cast a vote for George McGovern when he ran against Richard Nixon in 1972.
But neither Mr. Romney nor Mr. Giuliani can change the subject with a simple I-was-a-different-person-back-then dismissal, because neither of them can point to a conversion story like Reagan’s. On numerous issues, they both strayed well off the G.O.P. reservation for their entire careers—until they decided to run for president.
And so they must play a silly game, trying to convince the right they’ve been pure conservatives all along, which means they have to explain away all of their past flirtations with the other party. The result, as the issue of their past presidential votes illustrates, is often ridiculous.
As a candidate for the U.S. senate in 1994, Mr. Romney volunteered on numerous occasions that he had voted for Tsongas in the ’92 presidential primary. It was part of his effort to convince Massachusetts voters not to confuse him with the faces of the national G.O.P. they mistrusted.
To this end, Mr. Romney also made it known in 1994 that he hoped “it will be the moderates of both parties who will control the Senate, not the Jesse Helmses”; that he was “not trying to return to Reagan-Bush”; that he hadn’t known any Republicans before entering the race; and that he had originally considered running as an independent, and not a Republican.
But when his vote for Tsongas was raised earlier this year, Mr. Romney tried to portray his ’92 self as a devoted conservative dutifully engaged in sabotage of the left.
Noting that he could vote in either primary when he’d been an independent, he told ABC News that “when there was no real contest in the Republican primary, I’d vote in the Democrat primary—vote for the person who I thought would be the weakest opponent for Republicans.”
Like most spin, this cover story depends on the ignorance of its intended audience. It is hard to believe now, but when Mr. Romney voted in that 1992 primary, Paul Tsongas was not considered “the weakest” potential opponent for the G.O.P.—Bill Clinton, then best known as a draft dodger and philanderer, was. At the time of the Massachusetts primary, Tsongas was hot. He’d attracted startling support from independents and even some Republicans and had opened a five-point lead over President George H.W. Bush in polls.
Mr. Giuliani, too, is trying to wiggle out of his own voting history. Past support for George McGovern was an asset when Mr. Giuliani ran on the Liberal Party line in New York City, but now the former mayor wants it known that he actually voted for Mr. McGovern under some kind of self-inflicted psychological distress.
“I actually remember saying to myself, ‘If I was a person really deciding who should be president right now, I’d probably vote for Nixon, because I think the country would be safer with Nixon,’” he told The Weekly Standard this week.
Since the McGovern vote came relatively early in his life, Mr. Giuliani might be tempted to portray the experience as some kind of Reagan-like conversion moment. But he can’t, because he followed it up with three decades’ worth of regular disloyalty to conservative dogma—like his 1994 endorsement of Mario Cuomo. So he’s stuck with just pretending he didn’t really mean it.
On their voting histories and many other issues, Mr. Romney and Mr. Giuliani have trapped themselves: Dishonesty makes them look absurd, but honesty would confirm how opportunistic they are. They’ve chosen dishonesty, and so far, it’s not working out too badly for them.
Follow Steve Kornacki via RSS.