This editorial in fact sums up the Romney problem in a nutshell. By any conventional measure, here is an outstandingly qualified GOP presidential candidate. He’s proved his executive skills, he has thought long and intelligently about public policy and he articulates those views forcefully and well.
Yet when he makes the kinds of compromises that politicians sometimes have to make, he attracts unique odium. Romney has had many fewer abrupt changes of mind than, say, Newt Gingrich, who (you may recall) used to be an environmentalist, among other things. Yet Newt escapes the flip-flopper charge, because whatever view he is expressing at the moment, he expresses ferociously. There’s an old Hollywood saying, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Romney’s problem is that he cannot fake sincerity. When he panders, people always suspect he knows better – and they blame him for it.
This isn’t quite right, but the Globe editorial to which Frum is referring is even more misguided in one important respect. While Frum gets Romney’s “problem” wrong, the editorial makes the far bigger mistake of arguing that Romney had or has fixed, guiding principles that he could violate by opposing the Park51 project. Yes, Romney gave a speech praising religious tolerance in January 2008, but that was a long time ago during one of Romney’s previous incarnations. That was the pre-Iowa, “no, really, I’m a social conservative now!” Romney. This was briefly replaced by the desperate, auto industry-subsidizing Romney who would say anything to win in Michigan, and that one gave way to the rather sad CPAC Romney who announced the end of his campaign to keep Al Qaeda from winning. In the fall of ’08 and through the first months of ’09, Romney once more became a “responsible” pro-corporate Republican who was all for bailing out financial firms, but absolutely against bailing out Detroit, which he had previously promised to subsidize with around $20 billion dollars. Then being anti-bailout was all the rage, and we had Romney the fervent foe of all bailouts. Then there was the unaffordable, universal health care-enabling former governor who was firmly opposed to universal health care because it was unaffordable. Throughout all of it, there has been some continuity, and this has been his staggering ignorance when it comes to anything related to foreign policy, which he just put on display again this summer with his anti-START theatrics. He attracts special scorn because he is an outstanding example of a politician who manages to combine having no core convictions with the insufferable arrogance of someone playing at being a true believer.
Religious tolerance was useful two and a half years ago, because it gave him a chance to win over religious conservatives on the basis of “shared values,” but that was all in the service of making Christian voters accept him. There are not many Muslim primary voters in either party, but there are quite a few hawkish nationalist primary voters that Romney wants to win, and so he has staked out the now-conventional anti-mosque position that those voters apparently want. It is questionable whether Romney has had fewer abrupt changes in his views, but regardless these have not been tactical shifts or minor adjustments. Over the last few years, they have involved dramatic about-faces on a range of issues, and his attempts to reconcile the contradictions always leave him seeming less credible than he did before.
If the Globe is wrong to believe Romney had principles that he has violated, Frum is wrong when he characterizes Romney’s moves as “the kinds of compromises that politicians sometimes have to make.” Romney didn’t have to do anything in this case, but he made this “compromise” anyway. He did this not because he had to, but because he wants to build his reputation on the right. Clearly, Frum admires Romney, and he probably thinks that Romney was in earnest when he gave that speech on religion in American life, so how can he dismiss Romney’s latest as some commonplace compromise?