Mitt Romney's Core

Mitt Romney's Core

By Carl M. Cannon - March 19, 2012

Mitt Romney lacks "a core." That's the rap anyway, a critique of the 2012 Republican front-runner that has metastasized into conventional wisdom in both political parties, in two successive presidential election cycles.

"There is a sense there is no core to him," Obama political adviser David Axelrod tells CBS News. "He has no core," Obama aide-de-camp David Plouffe adds dutifully on "Meet the Press."

Obviously, partisan considerations color the Democrats’ evaluation. But here's Romney's chief rival for the GOP nomination: “This is someone who doesn't have a core,” Rick Santorum said Monday on CBS's “This Morning.” “He’s been on both sides of almost every single issue in the past 10 years.”  And before he dropped out of the 2012 presidential race, Republican Jon Huntsman concurred. “When you combine a record of uncertainty -- running first [for] senator, as a liberal; governor as a moderate; then as a conservative for the presidency,” he said, “people wonder where your core is.”

That pithy analysis is not wrong, exactly. But as Huntsman’s own abortive 2012 presidential run illustrates, there is another way to look at modern American politics -- and at Romney. Pandering, flip-flopping, and steady reinvention are not limited to the GOP front-runner in 2012. They are common features of modern American politicians, and perhaps necessary ones.

All of which raise a question: What if it’s not Mitt Romney who lacks “a core,” but our politics?

The Personal Is Not the Political

It’s a matter of record that Romney was pro-choice while running for office in Massachusetts, before becoming pro-life as he began eyeing a White House bid. He also favored a comprehensive approach to immigration reform before discovering in mid-campaign the dubious silver bullet of “self-deportation.”

Back in the day, Romney also eschewed the policies of Ronald Reagan before embracing them once he started running for president. In Boston, he was a pioneer in using the state tax code to ensure universal health insurance before deciding as a presidential candidate that such a mandate is a classic example of government overreach.

With the exception of the “life issues” of abortion and embryonic stem cell research, Romney is reluctant to acknowledge this alteration. But his fellow Republican presidential candidates, to say nothing of Obama campaign officials, are not shy on the subject. Romney, they argue, will say anything to get elected.

That might be too strong, but it’s pretty clear that what Romney is doing is telling the GOP’s conservative base, which is obviously to the right of him, what it wants to hear: that he’s one of them. This is neither noble, nor forthright. But it is not really the same thing as lacking a core, and Romney is hardly the only one who does it.

As a Yale student in the mid-1960s, George W. Bush upbraided his fraternity brothers for needling a gay man. As president, Bush blithely dismissed same-sex marriage, insisting that wedlock is an institution reserved for “a man and a woman.”

This formulation was offered as a concession to the Republicans’ conservative base. But most prominent Democrats, including Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Barack Obama, made the same calculation -- and employed the same fatuous phrase in support of their position.

Are all these Democrats being craven? Perhaps. Another way to think of it is that they are being careful not to get too far out in front of the electorate. This is not moral leadership, to be sure, but such compromises do reflect the exigencies of electoral democracy.

In 1980, when Ronald Reagan chose George H.W. Bush as his running mate, journalists made sport of how quickly Bush went from being tepidly pro-choice on abortion to a confirmed right-to-life guy. But Reagan had made the same intellectual journey himself between the time he was elected governor of California and running for president of the United States.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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