A friend of mine who worked for a Senator from Arkansas liked to tell the story about the preacher applying for a job at a church in a small rural community in that state. The church elders, who were charged with making the hiring decision, met with this preacher to ask him his views on evolution. Not wanting to offend anyone, he replied, "I can preach it either way."
Mitt Romney has had a history of "preaching it either way" on many issues during his career in public life. Back in 1994, Romney challenged Ted Kennedy for the Senate in Massachusetts. Mitt had a little trouble articulating a consistent position on abortion. Kennedy described the situation as follows: "I'm pro-choice, and my opponent is multiple-choice." In 2008, when Mitt challenged John McCain for the Republican nomination, McCain became frustrated with Romney's shifting positions on various issues, stating, "There's no doubt about it Mitt, you're the change candidate in this election."
But Romney did not succeed in the business world and the mosh pit of the GOP nominating process without having some survival skills and learning from his mistakes. How Romney has handled the abortion issue indicates he still may have a way to go.
ROMNEY ON ABORTION
Romney was pro-choice when he ran for the Senate in Massachusetts in 1994, and for Governor in 2002. In July of 2005, with a little over a year left in his only term as Governor and with the beginnings of the 2008 Presidential campaign on the horizon, Romney surprised Massachusetts residents when he wrote in a Boston Globe Op-Ed "I am pro-life. I believe that abortion is the wrong choice, except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother." Five months later, Romney announced he would not run for re-election as Governor and, on his next-to-last day in office, filed papers for what turned out to be his unsuccessful run for the 2008 GOP Presidential nomination.
In June of 2011, six months before the GOP Primary season for this election cycle, Romney wrote a piece for the National Review entitled, "My Pro-Life Pledge." It used almost identical language to the piece in the Boston Globe six years earlier … abortion permitted in cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother. No mention of life beginning at conception. In today's GOP with the power of the ultra-right, Romney's position was insufficiently ferocious and dangerously moderate. That would change.
As the primary season heated up and Romney was getting challenged from the right by Rick Santorum, Romney moved his position on abortion to the right. Now, his website reiterates his position as "pro-life" but makes no mention of exceptions where abortion would be permitted. Additionally, he added the language that "life begins at conception and [he] wishes the laws of the nation reflected that view."
This version of his abortion position puts him in harmony with those on the ultra-right who are prepared to criminalize those who perform or receive an abortion. After all, if life begins at conception and abortion ends a life, isn't that a crime? That position might carry the day in a GOP Primary in Mississippi. It is, however, not a viable position in swing states for the general election.
So how does Mitt finesse this situation? He has to hold the ultra-right while appealing to a significant number of moderates to win. We received a little preview of Mitt's plans last Sunday on George Stephanopoulos's program. His guests were Stephanie Cutter, a capable Obama spokeswoman, and Eric Fehrnstrom, a reasonably competent (not withstanding his Etch-A-Sketch miscue) Romney spokesman.
They were talking about the major themes of the election. The jobs report had just come out two days prior, and was not a good number for Obama. Fehrnstrom wanted to talk about the economy and the jobs report exclusively, saying, "That's what the election is about." Cutter defended well and pointed to positive trends such as they are.
WOMEN'S ISSUES: A "DISTRACTION"
When Cutter sought to introduce abortion and other women's issues into the discussion, Fehrnstrom's response was "We know that the Obama campaign will use bright shiny objects to distract our attention from the real issue in this campaign, which is the economy."
Interesting. Not surprising, but interesting. The Romney campaign will seek to keep the ultra-right in the fold by putting strong language on abortion up on their website, and giving them some rhetorical red meat at the convention. The campaign is, however, tipping its hand in that it feels that the less said about issues of paramount importance to women, the better.
The takeaway on all this is twofold. First, Romney has had four positions on abortion in seven years. He was pro-choice, and he became pro-life with exceptions, and became pro-life without exceptions, and his current position is, "Let's not talk about the subject." Second, his spokesman, Mr. Fehrnstrom, who gave us the Etch-A-Sketch gaffe, may have stepped in it again, likening women and their concerns to "bright shiny objects" used to "distract".
Hmm. My guess is that there are some women out there who will not find that endearing.
We should listen more carefully to Mr. Fehrnstrom. He may be a window into Mr. Romney's 'flexible' thinking. He may also be a gift that keeps on giving … to Obama.