Romney Lunges to the Center on Abortion

If there’s any one issue that is emblematic of Mitt Romney’s core malleability, it’s abortion. Over the last 16 years, Romney has called himself “unequivocablly pro-choice,” pro-life (but unwilling to change the status quo), “delighted” to sign a national abortion ban, eager to extend the 14th Amendment to unborn children, and willing to turn abortion over to the states. Yesterday, Romney made another transformation: In an interview, he told the Des Moines Register, “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.”

Anyone familiar with the Romney of eight months ago knows that this runs counter to his stated positions. In a February interview, he said that he would cut Planned Parenthood, block foreign aid from going to abortion services, and appoint Supreme Court judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade. The problem here, of course, is the same problem he’s had with all of his positions; they’re popular with Republican voters, but toxic with the broader public. Yesterday’s interview was clearly an attempt to square this circle, and present a moderate image—“I have no plans to do anything about abortion”—while leaving a fair amount of wiggle room.

Romney’s statement doesn’t rule out action on legislation that he’s not familiar with, and it doesn’t rule out executive action. What’s more, it doesn’t rule out legislation that might come to his desk as president. If Mitch McConnell and John Boehner were to send something like the “Protect Life Act”—currently co-sponsored by Paul Ryan and Todd Akin—to the Oval Office, odds are good that President Romney would sign it.

The same goes for the constellation of anti-abortion bills passed by House Republicans over the last two years; given the extent to which Romney doesn’t have capital to spare with conservatives, he’s unlikely to expend his political resources on a fight to—for example—maintain funding for contraceptive services.

As for the Supreme Court, social conservatives are eager to overturn Roe v. Wade and clear the path for a national abortion ban—there’s no way in a President Romney wouldn’t appoint an anti-Roe judge. Indeed, it’s unclear whether there’s anyone on the conservative shortlist for the Court who supports upholding Roe.

Shortly after Romney gave his interview to the Register, a campaign spokesperson told the National Review that the Republican nominee would “of course support legislation aimed at providing greater protections for life,” a sure sign that his earlier statement was insincere (at best).

The upshot? There’s no sure way to know how Romney will approach abortion rights if elected president. If you’re skeptical that Romney will be as draconian as I’ve described, it’s worth keeping one thing in mind: Abortion isn’t a core issue for Romney. His indifference is what allows him to move from position to position, with little concern for consistency or principle. If forced to deal with the issue, he will defer to the people—abortion opponents—who do care.