Some people believe that Mitt Romney had a genuine change of heart on abortion; some people believe that he has flip-flopped to win first the Massachusetts governorship and then the Republican presidential nomination. There is a middle possibility. Perhaps it is simultaneously true that Romney would pass a lie-detector test if asked whether he thought abortion should generally be banned and that he would not have adopted this position in different political circumstances.
He could have reached this point in at least two ways. He could have been a closet pro-lifer all along. In this case he was lying before rather than now. Or he had no strong convictions on the issue and has talked himself into some.
Either explanation would tell against his character. All else being equal, one of course prefers to have a president, and a presidential candidate, with better character rather than worse. But there seems to be a shortage of presidential candidates who combine conservative positions on the broad range of policy issues, sound character, intelligence, and electability. So—on the assumption that Romney’s political conversion is entirely cynical—how should we factor that assumption into our decisions on whom to back?
I think we ought to be unsentimental about this question. Those of us who favor Romney’s position on sanctity-of-life issues ought to care less about its sincerity than about its stability. We ought to care about whether he will abandon the position, that is, not whether he truly believes it. Pro-lifers would win very few votes in Congress if every representative voted his conscience, after all. Presumably a politician is more likely to stick with a position if he deeply believes it; but it is too facile to say that having flipped before, a politician will flop again.
As a test case, I offer the first President Bush. He converted from pro-choice to pro-life, and many questioned his sincerity since the conversion dovetailed so perfectly with his political needs. I myself think that he genuinely became a moderate pro-lifer: But does the answer really matter? He was a steady friend of pro-lifers during his administration, vetoing one pro-abortion bill after another.
If a politician can’t project sincerity even when he is insincere—or worse, can’t do it when he really is sincere—then he is probably in the wrong business. The suspicious timing of Romney’s change of mind may end up dooming his candidacy. But in that case, the most likely beneficiary is John McCain, the sincerity of whose own pro-life convictions has been questioned, and we will have to answer the same questions about him.