Mitt Romney has a problem, which is that the portrait about him has already been written. Not only that, it's the kind that can't really be proved wrong. Let's say you're Sarah Palin, and part of the portrait about you is that you're an utter ignoramus when it comes to things like policy, or things like ... well, anything really. You could hit the trail and prove people wrong by showing yourself to actually be remarkably well informed and insightful. Not that you will, but you could. And over time, some might decide that maybe you're not so dumb after all.
But if the portrait of you says that you're an opportunistic phony who's willing to switch positions at a moment's notice, you get virtually no credit for having the same position you've always had on some things. You can't say, "Look at me, I didn't pander or flip-flop today -- don't you think you were wrong about me?" Not only that, people may accuse you of flip-flopping even when you're not. Worst of all, you'll watch your opponents alter their positions with little or no consequence, if their portraits aren't about flip-flopping. To illustrate with the prototypical campaign of caricatures, in 2000 Al Gore could say something stupid without anyone thinking he was stupid, and George W. Bush could lie without anyone concluding he was a liar.
Pointing to a tough Boston Globe editorial titled "Romney's Cave-In On Mosque Violates His Own Principles," David Frum objects that other potential GOP presidential candidates have acted much more despicably on the Cordoba House issue than Romney, yet Romney is catching heat for it:
Yet when he makes the kinds of compromises that politicians sometimes have to make, he attracts unique odium. Romney has had many fewer abrupt changes of mind than, say, Newt Gingrich, who (you may recall) used to be an environmentalist, among other things. Yet Newt escapes the flip-flopper charge, because whatever view he is expressing at the moment, he expresses ferociously. There’s an old Hollywood saying, "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you've got it made." Romney's problem is that he cannot fake sincerity. When he panders, people always suspect he knows better – and they blame him for it.
One might argue that Romney made this bed with his alarming lurch rightward in preparation for the 2008 campaign, so now he'll have to lie in it. Which is true -- the man's shamelessness is something to behold. But it's also true that there will probably be times in this upcoming presidential race when Romney will be blamed for flips he didn't really flop. And there won't be anything he can do about it.
-- Paul Waldman