Listen, I get the notion of public conversions. Really, I do. Personally, I buy into conversions on issues a whole lot more than I buy into conversions on people. It is, I suppose, entirely believable that Romney has had a change of heart about the issue of abortion (more infra), but to declare 12 years ago that you wouldn’t even be a member of the same party as Reagan, and now to say that he’s “one of your heroes” strikes me as cynical manipulation of the highest degree. Reagan hasn’t done a darn thing in public since 1994 to change Romney’s mind; the only thing that’s changed is the audience to whom he is pandering. ~Leon Wolf

My Enchiridion colleague Mr. Wolf and Jim Antle have taken issue with Ramesh Ponnuru when he wrote:

I don’t have a presidential candidate yet, but I wonder if social conservatives are doing themselves any favors here. Certainly Romney is going to have to offer an explanation of how his thinking has changed over the years. It may be that in some cases, it hasn’t changed all that much. He may still take some of the positions he took back then, and in other cases he may think that the same principles that led him to those positions now, in changed circumstances, lead him to different positions. Or he may simply have changed his mind.

Surely Weyrich and Perkins don’t mean to cast out anyone who has come over time to agree with them? That doesn’t seem like a recipe for the success of their causes.

Mr. Antle thinks Mr. Ponnuru is claiming that soc-cons are being counter-productive in making a big deal out of Romney’s latter-day (pun intended) conversion to pro-life and anti-gay marriage causes.  When Ponnuru asks rhetorically whether they (Perkins and Weyrich) would want to throw out Sam Brownback, too (a suggestion I would accept, but for different reasons), he is making the same point, which would seem to be that it is hardly the stuff of successful coalition-building to make someone’s old positions the basis for doubting his current convictions.  Okay. 

But there is a difference, however, between casting someone out and elevating someone to a place of great prominence–the standards of “purity” and “devotion,” or whatever you’d like to call it, are higher or are normally supposed to be higher for leaders of a group than they are for the average member.  No one in the GOP is interested in tossing out John McCain (more’s the pity), but a lot of people have perfectly good reasons to not want him as their party leader and nominee.  The test social conservative leaders are applying to Romney is no different.  Staying in the “club” is one thing; getting to run the club is quite another, and anyone who wants to run it will necessarily undergo greater scrutiny.  If Romney has trouble with the scrutiny at this stage, he is almost certainly not ready for the main event.  That is something the people he would claim to represent need to know, so holding his feet to the fire on these things is most desirable.  It is, of course, also quite irrelevant in the end, since virtually no one in the primaries will vote for him because of his religion, which makes all of the talk about his past views rather redundant and as meaningless as speculating on how many delegates Obama will get (the correct answer is 0).

Plus, Messrs. Wolf and Antle have strong reasons to doubt that these convictions are not cynical ploys when these convictions, such as they are, have appeared on the scene only after Romney’s last gubernatorial campaign as he was preparing to make himself into a national Republican figure.  We cannot know Romney’s heart; we lack Mr. Bush’s soul-seeing powers.  Therefore we must judge by what he has done, and that is to rather brazenly and dramatically run away from his former advocacy of gay rights and his support for legal abortion as the damage those positions might do to his future political ambitions increased.  Unlike McCain, he has started playing the “faith” and “values” cards much earlier and so has gained an undue level of credibility on his position switches such that, pre-Brownback, he was considered by some to be the obvious soc-con poster boy.  In other words, he has been cynical longer, but that does not make him immune to the charge of cynicism.  It does rate him some praise, if that’s the right word, as a first-rate Clintonian operator.  Why you want someone like that representing you, I have no idea.   

Mr. Antle makes the reasonable claim that if his campaign is riding on social conservative issues (I am hard-pressed to think of what else he would use that would distinguish him at this point) the relatively recent adoption of his current views hardly marks him as a consistent, proven defender of the positions he now claims to hold.  We cannot say for sure that he is absolutely or mostly cynical (though the two-faced nature of his attitude towards Reagan in ’94 and today is telling of the kind of operator we’re looking at here), but were most other politicians to undergo the same process of “discovery” and “evolution” in a fairly short period of time I think we all know that they would be called shysters and opportunists.  He now admires President Reagan, with whom he was offended to be associated by party in the past.  Like Mr. Wolf, I do not impose Reagan-loyalty tests (these are almost always fronts for new versions of bad policy proposals that President Reagan made the mistake of supporting in the past), but if he wanted nothing to do with Reagan 12 years ago it is strangely convenient how he embraces the mantle and legacy of the man today.  More telling and more worrisome than all of this is his enthusiasm for TR: Romney has shown himself to be John McCain, but with better hair.

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