Mitt Romney took some fairly tough questions from moderator Chris Wallace on his notorious political reinvention at Thursday’s debate.
“Governor Romney, you have changed your position in the last ten years on abortion, on gay rights, on guns,” Wallace asked. “You say keeping an open mind is a strength. Some of your critics say every one has been to your political advantage. You took liberal positions in Massachusetts but now you take more conservative positions running for president. Is it principle or just politics?”
Romney took issue with the gay rights mention, noting that he had always opposed gay marriage.
“I am firmly in support of people not being discriminated against based upon their sexual orientation,” he said.” At the same time, I oppose same-sex marriage. That has been my position from the beginning.”
He’s correct, but his answer understates just how far out on a limb he went relative to his party — he argued in 1994 he would be better on gay rights than Ted Kennedy, a time when gay marriage was barely on the national radar as a political issue. Wallace brought this episode up in a follow up question, asking whether “you are still more of a champion of gay rights than Ted Kennedy was.”
“I believe as a Republican I had potential to fight for anti-discrimination in a way that would be better than [Senator Kennedy] the Democrat, who was expected to do so,” he said. “At the same time, Chris, in 1994, and throughout my career I said I oppose same-sex marriage. “
There was a similar dynamic at play as Romney explained his shift on abortion, an area where he said he “changed my mind.”
“With regard to abortion, I had the experience of coming in to office, running for governor saying you know I’m going to keep the laws as they exist in the state,” he said. “They were pro-choice laws so effectively I was pro-choice. Then I had a bill come to my desk that didn’t just keep the laws as they were but would have created new embryos for the purpose of destroying them. I studied it in some depth and concluded I simply could not sign on to take human life. I vetoed that bill. I described to them why I am pro-life.”
But the description of Romney as a relatively neutral, even pro-life, politician who merely went with the flow on his state’s current laws is at odds with his record as well. For example, he brought up a moving story about a family member who died of an illegal abortion during a debate with Ted Kennedy in 1994 in order to prove his dedication to state laws ensuring access to safe, legal, abortions.
“I have my own beliefs, and those beliefs are very dear to me,” he said in that debate. “One of them is that I do not impose my beliefs on other people. Many, many years ago, I had a dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion. It is since that time that my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that.”
Pro-choice groups in Massachusetts claim that Romney wooed them by explicitly pledging to challenge his own party over abortion. “You need someone like me in Washington,” NARAL Pro-Choice members say Romney told them in a 2002 meeting, arguing that he would be a “good voice in the party” on abortion rights.
The exchange was a good reminder that, for all the talk about Romney’s flip flops, he hasn’t had to face too many tough, extended exchanges over them. Should he win the nomination, then they’re going to come up plenty in the general election as Democrats have already pledged to make his shifting positions central to their campaign against him.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.