Let’s start by stipulating the obvious: Mitt Romney is absolutely correct when he complains—as he did repeatedly throughout last night’s final pre-Super Tuesday Republican debate—that John McCain has intentionally and maliciously misrepresented Romney’s publicly stated views on the Iraq war.
It was in the closing days of the Florida campaign that McCain threw Romney on the defensive with charges that the former Massachusetts governor had favored a troop withdrawal—or “surrender,” as McCain prefers—last year at this time.
This was an utterly flimsy assertion, if for no other reason than this: Romney’s entire campaign has been premised on cozying up to the conservative base, even if it means reversing positions and attitudes that he’d held for years. Splitting with a Republican White House—and the party base—over a matter of war in the early days of a primary campaign was never in his playbook.
But as the Florida results showed, McCain’s was also a highly effective tactic, one that Romney protested furiously when the two met in California for last night’s debate.
“Raising it a few days before the Florida primary, when there was very little time for me to correct the record…sort of falls in the kind of dirty tricks that I think Ronald Reagan would have found to be reprehensible,” Romney harrumphed last night with McCain sitting just a few inches to his right.
He also branded the attack as “an attempt to do the Washington-style old politics.” He spit out a list of seemingly dozens of news outlets and political commentators that have cried foul at the McCain tactic. The audience roared with approval as the glib Romney tore into McCain, who received only lukewarm applause—at best—when he repeated his original charge in response.
And for good reason. In this particular dispute, the facts are on Romney’s side, and few politicians are as skilled at Romney at projecting wounded indignation.
But for all of Romney’s griping, there is a certain justice in his campaign being sullied by such a disingenuous gambit. Romney, after all, has built his entire campaign on disingenuousness, wrapping himself in a language and ideology that he once told Massachusetts voters repulsed him.
More than that, he has shown remarkably little restraint in taking his newfound, base-friendly views and spending millions of dollars to advertise them. His chief target, for nearly a year now, has been McCain.
It was Romney who just two years ago matter-of-factly told the Massachusetts press that McCain’s views on immigration were “reasonable” and that the Arizonan’s call for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers was “not amnesty.” Then he discovered that conservative activists were livid with McCain—the same activists whose support Romney badly wanted for his presidential bid. So he reversed himself, began spouting nativist rhetoric, and slammed McCain—in debates, speeches, interviews and television and radio ads—for supporting “amnesty.”
Meanwhile, it was McCain who stood by his position, at enormous political peril, urging a “humane” solution to the immigration morass and acknowledging that illegal immigrants “are God’s children” too. Right or wrong, McCain handled the issue honorably.
That’s just one example of the shameless opportunism that has defined Romney’s effort. In Massachusetts he brought audiences to tears with the story of a “close family member” who died from a back alley abortion, and how the experience had convinced him that abortion should be a matter of deeply personal choice, and not any business of the government’s. “You will not see me waver on that,” he declared.
But then he decided to run for President and declared himself adamantly pro-life, claiming that he had only been “effectively pro-choice” back in Massachusetts (whatever that means). McCain, meanwhile, has opposed legal abortion throughout his entire public career. Again, right or wrong, he has been consistent.
Gay rights, tax cuts, gun control: Over and over in this campaign, Romney’s convenient changes of heart—whether in his actual policy positions or just in the way he talks about issues—have been well-documented. On literally every subject in which he was vulnerable to criticism from conservatives, Romney shifted his attitudes before entering the campaign, meaning he has never been in position—as McCain has often been—to have to defend an unpopular view.
And he authored a brand new chapter last night, proclaiming that Ronald Reagan would “absolutely” endorse him if the former President were still alive. Of course, when Reagan actually was alive, Romney was running around Massachusetts assuring voters that “I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I’m not trying to return to Reagan-Bush.”
Which brings us to McCain’s attack over the Iraq war. It marked the first time in the campaign that one of Romney’s rivals decided to give him a taste of his own medicine.
McCain, in last night’s debate, all but admitted that payback was part of his motive.
“Your negative ads, my friend, have set the tone in this campaign,” he told Romney.
In a perfect world, McCain would have taken the high road throughout the entire campaign while Romney slowly collapsed under the weight of his own phoniness.
But the world is hardly perfect, and McCain’s unfair attack is one of the reasons he is likely to outlast Romney in this nominating contest. Which is itself a kind of imperfect justice.