William Saletan's exhaustive Slate overview of Mitt Romney's evolving position on abortion offers a number of noteworthy tidbits, including the revealing detail that the first time Romney had to take a public stance on the issue, during a failed 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy, he justified his decision to take a pro-choice position to fellow Mormon leaders using poll data. But the single most telling thing about the piece is probably that it takes more than 13,000 words to fully explain what Romney's position was and is. And by the end, the position itself turns out to be beside the point: Saletan concludes that neither Romney's early pro-choice persona nor his more recent development into a pro-lifer is "real." Romney's "soul," Saletan writes, is "in the flux, the transition between the two roles. It's in the editing of his record, the application of his makeup, the shuffling of his rationales. Romney will always be what he needs to be. Count on it."
Elsewhere, Romney enthusiast Jennifer Rubin admits that Romney is "not the ideal conservative candidate," but hails him as "in many ways the epitome of the center-right consensus," which she argues is ultimately a good thing. I think there's some truth to her description, but I'm not sure it's a qualification. The problem is that Romney is almost purely a creature of consensus. Another way to put it might be that Romney is no ordinary political flip-flopper, content with obvious reversals of surface positions; instead, he's a uniquely talented panderer, in part because he insists on hedging his reversals in such a way that he convinces himself he's never changed. As Saletan writes:
Romney believes in telling the truth and keeping his promises. But sometimes he wishes the truth or his promise had happened in a different way. He wishes he could change it. And in his mind, he does change it. He reinterprets his statements, positions, and pledges. He edits his motives and reasons. He compresses intervals. He inflates moments. He tightens the narrative. He rewrites his lines. Yet he always finds a thread of truth on which to hang his revised history. He's a master of the technicality.
He's also a gifted salesman. He learns your language and puts you at ease. He gives you the version of his record, position, or motive that will please you most. When he comes down on your side, it's intentional. When he doesn't, it's inadvertent. He focuses not on communicating his beliefs but on formulating, framing, or withholding them for political effect. He tells moving stories of personal experience to show you his sincerity. Then, if necessary, he erases those stories from his playbook and his memory.
As I realized while writing and researching my recent feature on Romney, most any attempt to sift through Romney's record inevitably reveals the same sort of maddeningly slippery positioning: Romney promised not to raise taxes as governor of Massachusetts, so he raised a variety of business "fees" instead. He happily agreed that his Massachusetts health care overhaul should serve as a "model for the nation," but bashes the national reform modeled after his own plan. Studying the varying intricacies of his positions in hopes of learning what policies he truly believes in eventually reveals that there is not much to learn. Or at least not about Romney. Instead, his campaign is better viewed as a reflection on the contemporary GOP, a talented salesman and analyst's attempt to capture and organize its inconsistencies and internal debates into a single candidate. Studying Romney doesn't tell us a whole lot about Romney. But it does tell us something about the fractured state of the party he's trying to win over.