The National Right to Life Committee’s decision to endorse Fred Thompson for president not only made a strong statement about Thompson; it also said something about Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has done everything he can to convince social conservatives that his conversion to the pro-life cause in late 2004 was genuine and that today he is the best candidate to represent social conservatives’ concerns. Yet National Right to Life officials chose someone else.
“It shows that they have lingering doubts about Romney’s real commitment,” says an influential social conservative who has sometimes been allied with the committee. “It came down to a choice between Thompson and Romney, and Thompson had the longer record.”
The endorsement is just the latest evidence that Romney has still not closed the deal with those voters for whom abortion and other social issues are paramount. Perhaps more than any others, those voters know Romney’s record. He ran as a strongly pro-choice Republican in 1994, when he unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts, and again in 2002, when he successfully ran for governor. Then, in late 2004, in the midst of a debate in the Massachusetts legislature over stem-cell research, he changed his mind on abortion, and later, in 2005, wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe explaining that he is now pro-life. Since those changes occurred so recently, and since they came at the same time Romney was beginning to explore a run for president — his political action committee, Commonwealth PAC, was formed in July 2004, a few months before his stem-cell decision — a number of pro-life voters view his conversion with some suspicion.
During a campaign ride through northeastern Iowa recently, I asked Romney about the people he still has to convince. How does he ease their concerns? At first, he suggested that his problems are the work of other candidates — “Opposition campaigns do a good job of trying to confuse people,” he told me. “That’s part of opposition campaign work.” But then, Romney said his most important qualification is his record.
“If someone wants to know what my positions are, they simply have to look at what I did as governor,” he told me, “and the record that I have as governor is, I believe, entirely consistent with the record I have as a candidate for president.”
“Specifically on the issue of life?”
“Particularly on the issue of life,” Romney said. “The first time a bill reached my desk that dealt with life, and the taking of life” — the stem-cell measure — ”I came down on the side of life. And as I served as governor, several bills had measures that related to life. I came down on the side of the sanctity of life, and at the end of my administration the Massachusetts Citizens for Life gave me the leadership award for my contribution towards protecting human life.”
All that sounds good. But the reason skepticism remains is that Romney had seemed so decisively pro-choice as recently as the 2002 gubernatorial campaign. I read him the statement he made in a questionnaire sent to him that year by the National Abortion Rights Action League. “I respect and will protect a woman’s right to choose,” he told NARAL. “This choice is a deeply personal one. Women should be free to choose based on their own beliefs, not mine and not the government’s.”
“That sounds like a philosophical position,” I said, “something that you came to because of your belief in the relationship of people to their government.”
“‘Philosophical’ is perhaps the right term,” Romney answered, “in that it’s very interesting philosophically to talk about something in an abstract manner, and then when you become governor, philosophy reaches reality. And I was asked to sign a bill that would take human life, and I simply would not do that and could not do that.” Later, Romney also vetoed a bill concerning “morning-after” contraception.
As we talked, I began a question, “If I could separate stem cells from abortion — “
Romney quickly interrupted. “You can’t, can you?”
“Well, there are laws that deal with stem cells,” I said, “and then there is Roe itself.”
“Well, they both relate to the sanctity of human life.”
“But your position was, as far as a woman’s right to have an abortion is concerned, that you would protect that and that you believed that Roe should be protected.”
“I’m not sure what your question is,” Romney said, growing visibly irritated. “I changed my view. Is that so difficult to understand?”
One source of skepticism about Romney is his habit of occasionally pushing his argument a little too far, of cutting a few corners with his record. Take that award from the Massachusetts Citizens for Life. It was presented in May 2007, not by the state organization of Massachusetts Citizens for Life but by the Pioneer Valley Regional Chapter, which represents the western part of the state. When Romney began to cite it in his campaign appearances, group officials in Boston issued a statement “to make clear that the local award did not constitute endorsement by the state organization.” The statement went on to give a mixed view of Romney, saying he had taken “a politically-expedient pro-abortion position,” but that “admitting that he was wrong took rare courage.” So what Romney points to as the stamp of approval from a pro-life group is really a bit less.
Another example: Recently, the Romney campaign, in response to a rather mild criticism on National Review Online, sent out a series of talking points to underscore his pro-life record. Among them was the assertion that “Governor Romney Support[ed] Parental Notification Laws and Opposed Efforts to Weaken Parental Involvement.” As evidence, the campaign cited an October 2002 Associated Press account of Romney’s debate with his Democratic opponent for governor, Shannon O’Brien. But a look at the debate itself shows that Romney, while opposing a proposal to lower the abortion-without-consent age from 18 to 16, spent a great deal of time reaffirming his pro-choice position. On five different occasions, he vowed to “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose.” He seemed comfortable with an 18 year-old girl receiving an abortion without parental consent, and he stressed his approval of a special legal process through which younger girls could also receive abortions without consent. No one watching the debate or reading the transcript could come away with the impression that Romney was anything but emphatically pro-choice. Yet now, he cites the debate as evidence of his commitment to life.
So his problem remains. It should be said that, given his leading position in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his strong current showing in South Carolina, Romney has clearly convinced many pro-lifers of his sincerity. But the National Right to Life Committee’s decision shows that he’s still hasn’t finished the job.