The White House has its eye on the GOP presidential hopeful for a reason.
Critics and supporters alike agree that Mitt Romney is eminently qualified to be president. His vast and successful experience in private business, his governorship of Massachusetts, and his miraculous turn around of the scandal-plagued Salt Lake City Olympics place him head and shoulders above the current occupant of the White House and many of his GOP rivals for the nomination as far as possessing the qualities necessary to be a successful chief executive.
But the same thing that irks his critics is possibly his greatest strength; a pragmatic, virtually non-ideological approach to governing and getting things done that eschews the kind of partisanship that is eating Washington alive and substitutes prudence and competence.
Detractors point to his supposed lack of passion and verve for political combat. Supporters talk up his ability to exude confidence and instill that attribute in others. And, of course, there is the accusation of flip-flopping and inconsistent adherence to conservative principles that has dogged Romney for most of his political career.
While many of those accusations are exaggerated or deliberately false, Romney admits that he occasionally changes his mind, saying, "in the private sector, if you don't change your view when the facts change, you'll get fired for being stupid." This may help explain his switch from opposing to supporting a flat tax, or even his turnaround on the Massachusetts health care plan that he authored with its individual mandate and regulated private insurance plans.
But it doesn't explain his evolving position on abortion, nor other social issues that have made him the bane of social conservatives in Iowa and around the country.
Romney's inconsistencies are no worse than many of the other candidates in the race. Newt Gingrich has been all over the map on issues like climate change and Libya. Rick Perry's stance on the Confederate battle flag issue and energy subsidies has changed since entering the race. And Herman Cain had heads spinning when he changed his position on abortion, sometimes it seemed hour to hour.
Not to excuse Romney, but shading, altering, or even turning 180 degrees on issues is not unheard of in politics. In the former Massachusetts governor's case, much of the perception appears to be the result of how a Republican must run in the Bay State to be successful, and how a GOP presidential candidate campaigns in far more conservative territory.
In the case of abortion and other social issues, it is fair to ask just what is it that Romney truly believes. Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post answers with his own question: "Is it really reasonable to assume that a former Mormon bishop, deep down, is a cultural liberal?" Romney ran for governor in 2002 promising not to alter the state's abortion laws -- among the most liberal in the nation -- saying, "I am not going to change our pro-choice laws in Massachusetts in any way. I am not going to make any changes which would make it more difficult for a woman to make that choice herself."
Romney now says he supports overturning Roe v. Wade and defunding Planned Parenthood, as well as opposing federal funding of abortions. By 2005, Romney says he had experienced "an epiphany" on abortion as a result of his research into the stem cell issue.
Changing my position was in line with an ongoing struggle that anyone has that is opposed to abortion personally, vehemently opposed to it, and yet says, "Well, I'll let other people make that decision." And you say to yourself, but if you believe that you're taking innocent life, it's hard to justify letting other people make that decision.
Romney supporters view this as a conversion, pointing out that it proves their candidate has an open mind and is capable of changing his opinion when presented with a new perspective. In private industry, this is an attribute much valued. It should be in a president as well.
Michael Gerson believes that "a hungry political party will tolerate some heterodoxy in the nomination of a strong candidate - if it is convinced that his or her values are sound." No doubt this is true, which makes Romney's courting of the conservative base of the GOP so important. Neither side can achieve what they desire unless Romney can demonstrate that his conversion on many social issues is more than simply part of a strategy to claim the nomination. And Gerson points out an advantage for the base in this process:
Even conservatives who buy none of these explanations may calculate that Romney is acceptable. Precisely because he has a history of ideological heresy, it would be difficult for him to abandon his current, more conservative iteration. He has committed himself on key conservative issues. Having flipped, he could not flop without risking a conservative revolt. As a result, conservatives would have considerable leverage over a Romney administration.
What about the 60% of Republicans who may hold pro-life and other socially conservative views but don't identify strongly with the base? These are the voters that want to pick the strongest possible candidate to go up against President Obama and are willing to accept a little heresy in exchange for victory in November. This is Romney's natural base of support and he is counting on the majority of the party to support him -- if he can navigate his way through the first few primaries and caucuses relatively unscathed.
The latest polls have Romney in first, second, or third place depending on which one you choose. But in survey after survey, GOP primary voters believe that Romney is the inevitable choice, no matter their personal preference. This is a perception carefully fed and nurtured by the Romney campaign and it appears to be working.
Romney has run a frontrunner's campaign. His debate performances have been gaffe-free while showing off his smooth delivery and command of the facts. His personal appearances have been carefully stage managed and his speeches have been generic enough not to offend anyone. While these tactics may not engender passion in his supporters, they inspire confidence in his abilities. It is this, more than bombast and name calling that Romney is counting on to resonate with voters in a general election campaign.
He has slowly begun to issue policy papers that reflect his common sense approach to the massive problems with our economy and federal spending. His economic plan is prudent but bold: Cut corporate taxes, pass free trade agreements, vastly increase energy production, consolidate worker retraining programs, and act on entitlement reform. He would also issue a series of executive orders that would undo most of the damage done by President Obama to the economy and government by reducing and eliminating unnecessary federal regulation.
His plan to "get America back to work," is more traditionally conservative. His website explains it as "calling for a fundamental change in Washington's view of how economic growth and prosperity are achieved, how jobs are created, and how government can support these endeavors." The plan "seeks to increase trade, energy production, human capital, and labor flexibility. It relinquishes power to the states instead of claiming to have the solution to every problem."
As far as entitlement reform, Romney has boldly adopted many of Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial ideas for Medicare vouchers and caps on spending. James Pethokoukis of the Enterprise blog believes that "[b]y embracing a pro-market, patient-centered approach, Romney has invited Team Obama to attack him for trying to "privatize" Medicare as surely as if he advocated phasing out the system entirely." The difference is that Romney will offer traditional Medicare coverage as an option.
In short, Romney is offering little with which few conservatives could disagree. And he has the track record in government to prove that he can get it done, having had to shave off a $3 billion shortfall in the Massachusetts budget while working with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. He accomplished this by not raising income taxes (he increased fees on a wide variety of state services) while closing corporate loopholes. As a result, the state was running a $600 million surplus by 2006.
Challenges to Romney's status as frontrunner have come and gone. The current "anyone but Romney" candidate is Newt Gingrich. The former Speaker of the House matches Romney's grasp of the issues and ability to articulate policy positions, but his well-known personal and ethical baggage might be too much for voters to overlook -- especially in the general election. Besides, Gingrich has his own problems with flip-flopping and the base is hardly more enamored of him than they are of Romney.
It may simply come down to Mitt Romney outlasting his rivals for the nomination. He has the money, the experience, and the organization to compete well into the primary season. And unless a candidate emerges who can unite the party any better than Romney has been doing, it is likely that Republican voters will see him as the best choice to take on President Obama and win the White House back for the GOP.
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