This Year's Charade

Mitt Romney wants to make something very clear.

We are inside the honey-colored, wooden A-frame of the Great Hall of Simpson's College in Indianola, Iowa, on a humid July evening, where an aged audience has trickled in for an early-bird Saturday dinner. The food, courtesy of the Republican presidential candidate, is as much of a throw back to a less-cosmopolitan time as the room, which was built in 1955. There is beef with gelatinous gravy, oily corn niblets, reconstituted potatoes, iceberg lettuce salad, buns with margarine, and iced tea. Drawn from the 14,000-person community south of Des Moines, the audience seems happy for the chance to socialize before the "Ask Mitt Anything" main show, one of the candidate's traveling question-and-answer sessions with possible Republican caucus-goers.

As the session gets underway, a questioner asks Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, about his reputation for flip-flopping on abortion rights, which he supported up until 2002. Romney is asked this question with some regularity, and quickly dispatches it by talking about other Republican greats who have changed their minds. But this time there's something else he wants to say, which no one asked him about just now. "If somebody wants somebody who is anti-gay, I'm not your guy," he tells the audience. "I'm not anti-gay. I won't discriminate."

The remark is disarmingly blunt for a candidate positioning himself as a social conservative and defender of strong families. Of course it is common for a presidential candidate to tell audiences what they want to hear. That is called pandering, and it is what Romney would do later in July, when he went to the Republican National Hispanic Assembly's annual convention, praised Hispanic values as "quintessentially American," and encouraged his party to "communicate how much we value immigration." But this evening, the audience for his anti-bigotry statement is one of white-haired Midwestern social conservatives.

I hear this kind of thing again and again as I follow Romney at each of five campaign stops in Iowa over two days. As he heads west across the verdant Iowa plains toward the Nebraska border, he offers what is essentially a recitation of traditional Democratic goals and calls for tolerance unusual from a Republican. "If I'm elected president, I'm going to work hard to make sure every American has health insurance," Romney told the audience in Carroll. In Council Bluffs he argued for government-subsidized private policies: "It's cheaper to buy people insurance than to give out free care at hospitals." He also calmly addressed border security fears without pandering to the right's worst instincts. "You can't protect a nation by putting up barriers and fences and magnetometers," he told voters back in Carroll. "Intelligence is key." He cited The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, a "wonderful book" by Columbia University Earth Institute director and former United Nations adviser Jeffrey Sachs, as providing the best template for how to address international poverty. He bragged about Massachusetts' offer of free four-year tuition to any public college for high school students who graduate in the top 25 percent of their class, an idea met with murmurs of wonder in Jefferson. When presented with occasions to question Democrats' patriotism, he took the high road. "I've worked with some Democrats," he said in Indianola. "I've found they love America, too." He strongly advocated for more robust international diplomacy when pressed about how to restore America's international reputation: "America is strong alone, but we're stronger when we have friends standing on our side."

After seven disastrous years of George W. Bush, whose approval rating had sunk to 25 percent by mid-July, Romney is trying to help a Republican base that feels abused, insulted, and embarrassed to once again hold up its head without shame. Among other things, Republicans are sick of hearing their president run down, and tired of being called bigots because of their opposition to legalizing gay marriage or to giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. The anger and disgust the GOP base feels toward the state of the nation was palpable during our trip across the state. "If something isn't done, the people are going to revolt against both parties," fumed Tom Collins, 56, a funeral director from Winterset, after the Indianola event. "I've been a conservative and a Republican, but I'm getting sick of my party not being able to get anything done. It's more a battle to defeat the other party."

Across Iowa, men demanded to know what Romney would do to restore America's standing in the world, seemingly taking America's loss of status as a personal affront. Chuck Offenburger, 60, a former newspaper columnist who backed Lamar Alexander in 1999 and lives on "an acreage" near Cooper, asked Romney what he would do "to restore the place of the United States in the world to one that's admired." Romney's reply focused on his background in international business, his travels to 40 countries, the need to "work with other nations to support moderate Islamic people to reject the extremists," and his efforts at keeping the Olympics safe. Offenburger said he was relieved by what might have sounded like a vague recitation of resumé points and platitudes because of what Romney did not emphasize. "The U.S. is thought of as a bully nation with a big military," Offenburger said. "I was afraid I was going to hear a much more militaristic answer than I did, which pleased me."

Romney, though, can't run only as the anti-Bush. The president retains much of his popularity with the GOP base: The same American Research Group poll that in July found just 1 percent of Democrats still pleased with the president showed him with a 68 percent approval rating from Republicans. So at the same time that Romney soothes audiences with reassurances that he -- and therefore they -- is no bigot, he praises the president and supports policies very similar to Bush's. "He won my vote when he talked about religion," Tom Collins' daughter Candice, 24, told me. (Romney turned a question about his Mormon faith into talk about his picture-perfect family, saying, "If you want to know my values, you can meet my wife and my son," referencing Ann and Josh Romney, who were making campaign appearances with him. He also repeatedly locates America's greatness in its culture and values, rather than in its abundant natural resources or climate.) For Candice Collins' mother Terri, 51, a legal secretary, the best moment came "when [Romney] said Bush has kept our country safe since 9-11." At the same time Romney draws on his decades in Massachusetts to suggest he is a different kind of Republican from the president, Romney also promises the base the same traditional mix of anti-abortion, anti–gay marriage, pro-torture, free-market policy-making that still binds them to the president, even as the rest of the nation has turned against him.

In short, Romney is charting a necessary course correction from the Bush years that even the Republican base wants -- while still giving that base the hard-right policies they have been reluctant, in the face of overwhelming evidence of their failure, to abandon. Liberals and moderates may mistake the post-Bush adjustment that Romney -- as well as any other GOP contender -- is making as a move toward genuine moderation by a chastened party. But a real move to the center is nowhere in evidence in Romney's policy prescriptions. This ability to play both sides has made him the master of misdirection in contest 2008 -- and also the Republican front-runner in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Romney's feints to the center have been enough to lead some liberal bloggers to pronounce Romney "the least bad Republican contender" and "the least bad [GOP] President if he should win." As M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis at the Israel Policy Forum, wrote at liberal blog TPMCafe, "He was, for a Republican, not a terrible governor and the Kennedy-Romney health care plan is better than most states have. He is a flip-flopper. To me that means he does not believe the right-wing garbage he puts out with such abandon."

Such perspectives, though understandable, are beside the point. It does not really matter which Mitt is the real Mitt or what he authentically believes. After seven years of Bush, liberals should know better than to imagine that the Republican base will nominate someone with secret plans to govern as a liberal, or even a moderate, regardless of what positions he once held in the past. The GOP will not, even accidentally, nominate someone still acceptable to a voter in Cambridge or Falmouth -- voters whose views Romney has already begun to use as a foil. The GOP will only choose Romney if it can first change him, too.

Romney may occasionally sound like a Democrat and he may sometimes talk like one. He is an immensely appealing personality in the flesh -- warm, funny, quick on his feet. But when it comes to all the most important issues of the day, the Republican primary process is turning him into the second coming of George W. Bush.

In the spring of 1999, bush appeared to be something new in American politics: a compassionate conservative. Liberal journals took him at face value, though with a glance at his father's wimp problem. "Wishy-washy or wise?" asked The New Republic (where I then worked). Campaign reporter Dana Milbank's assessment of Bush then could be applied directly to Romney today, changing only a few details.

What, exactly, does George W. Bush believe? The man tells us precious little himself. … It is, at first glance, a conservative message, based on the notion that traditional values will help prevent poverty and other ills. But, deeper down, Bush's approach, warts and all, should sound familiar -- and possibly comfortable -- to some liberals. He assumes that government can be a force for good and that it has a responsibility to help the weak. Bush's stances so far on national issues such as Kosovo and abortion have been full of ambiguity and obfuscation, seemingly dictated more by tactic than by principle. Still, beneath Bush's mush is some evidence that he's trying to introduce a government-friendly conservatism to a party often hijacked by harsh and selfish ideology.

By mid-2000, however, that had all changed. Like many Republican candidates before him, Bush was forced to reach out to social conservatives in order to win, and that drove Bush further to the right than he had ever been. He gave a controversial speech at South Carolina's Bob Jones University, begun in the 1920s as a whites-only Bible college, and relied heavily on evangelicals and on the organizing power of the Christian Coalition to derail John McCain in South Carolina. In the general election, he tacked back to the center, but by then the course of his presidency was set. In retrospect, it was folly for people to believe that Bush's advertised moderation in the general election was the path he would choose to govern from or that Bush even could choose to be -- as he marketed himself -- a new kind of Republican. By then he owed the far-right too many outstanding chits for that.

Like Bush, Romney believes that the road to the White House runs through the conservative communities of Iowa's western plains and the rolling hills of South Carolina. And while Romney may have expressed support for abortion rights as recently as his 2002 gubernatorial run, last fall he reached out to the same conservative judicial activists who helped Bush win over base voters in 2000 and mobilize support for him among evangelical communities in South Carolina. In December, powerful conservative constitutional lawyer Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice and a close ally of Karl Rove's, signed on as a Romney legal adviser. In 1999, Sekulow's endorsement of Bush was a harbinger of the support Bush would ultimately receive from the Christian right, and Sekulow has since guided Bush toward judicial nominees who are slowly undoing the legal legacy of the late-20th century.

Gary Marx, the executive director of the Judicial Confirmation Network and former Bush-Cheney campaign liaison to social conservatives, is also advising the Romney campaign, as is well-known pro-life attorney James Bopp, Jr., the Christian Legal Society member known for his advocacy of a "human-life amendment" to the U.S. Constitution. Bopp's clients have included the National Right to Life Committee (he's still their general counsel), Focus on the Family, the Traditional Values Coalition, and the Christian Coalition.

Romney may have been governor of a state with one of the more liberal courts in nation, a court whose 2003 Goodridge decision stated that the right of gays to marry was supported by the state's constitution. But when it comes to judicial issues, he is running hard-right. On the trail, he repeatedly derides the Goodridge decision as something that would have come as a surprise to John Adams, the primary author of the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "Perhaps more than any other governor in America I have seen what happens when you have an activist court," Romney said in Indianola. "I was so proud of President Bush for selecting and installing Justice Alito and Roberts."

Romney laid it on even thicker for the Iowa Christian Alliance in Council Bluffs. "I will appoint justices like Alito and Roberts and Scalia and Thomas," he told them, cognizant of how thrilled the conservative base has been with this year's Supreme Court session. "And, I believe that if we do, we will see Roe v. Wade opened up." Romney promised the group that he would like to turn the abortion question back over to the states, where, it is widely understood, a substantial portion of them will instantly outlaw the procedure except in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment of the pregnant woman. After his remarks, the couple that heads the local crisis pregnancy center in Council Bluffs was swarmed by well-wishers, including Romney. GOP Iowa caucus-goers are roughly three-quarters anti-abortion, according to Christian Alliance president Steve Scheffler, and 35 percent to 40 percent are either evangelical Christians or anti-abortion Catholics.

Or take the question of America's Iraq policy, which Pottawattamie County Republican Chairman Steve Cates said would be "absolutely one of the two biggest issues," along with immigration. Romney, like McCain, has supported the war, and as he campaigned in Iowa he strongly defended this spring's and summer's surge of troops into Iraq. He also has continued to defend the president's conduct of the war on terror. "Give Bush credit," he told the crowd in Indianola. "After September 11, the president has kept America safe, and I appreciate that very deeply." In Jefferson, he added, "It's very popular to be critical of the president in some quarters. But let's remember the president kept us safe after 9-11." Romney has also defended the president's decision to sign the Patriot Act: "When some people said ‘no' to the Patriot Act, to listening in to al- Qaeda, he said ‘yes,'" he told voters in Carroll. And Romney has been highly critical of John Edwards' decision to criticize the president by calling the "war on terror" a bumper-sticker slogan.

When it comes to the question of torture, Romney's statements have been a model of obfuscation. "I support tough interrogation techniques, enhanced interrogation techniques, in circumstances where there is a ticking time bomb, a ticking bomb," Romney said in Denison, Iowa, according to an AP report. "I do not support torture, but I do support enhanced interrogation techniques to learn from terrorists what we need to learn to keep the bombs from going off." Thus is he on the record as both supporting torture and opposing it.

Romney has also been mocked by liberals for his call to "double Guatanamo," but that May GOP debate statement in support of lawless interrogation was no off-the-cuff remark. One of his chief foreign policy advisers is J. Cofer Black, a veteran covert operative who directed the CIA's Counter-terrorism Center (CTC) from 1999 until May 2002, before becoming the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department during Bush's first term. He is now vice chairman of the private military contractor Blackwater USA. Black has testified before Congress that, "[A]ggressive, relentless, worldwide pursuit of any terrorist who threatens us is the only way to go and is the bottom line."

The CIA's CTC that Black ran is the division responsible for carrying out America's extraordinary rendition policy through its Rendition Group. In 2002, Black told Congress, "After 9-11 the gloves came off." According to The Washington Post's Dana Priest: "Dressed head to toe in black, including masks, [members of the Rendition Group] blindfold and cut the clothes off their new captives, then administer an enema and sleeping drugs. They outfit detainees in a diaper and jumpsuit for what can be a day-long trip. Their destinations: either a detention facility operated by cooperative countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Afghanistan, or one of the CIA's own covert prisons -- referred to in classified documents as ‘black sites,' which at various times have been operated in eight countries, including several in Eastern Europe." After 9-11 this center grew from 300 to 1,200 people "nearly overnight" and became known as the Camelot of counterterrorism, according to the Priest article.

Even as Romney preaches tolerance toward others, laying the groundwork for the general election, he also preaches intolerance to appeal to his base, or stands silent as they preach it on their own. There has been no statement too outrageous, no group too far to the right, that he has felt a need to condemn it. In March, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Romney cozied up to Ann Coulter right before she controversially called John Edwards a "faggot." Over the summer, Romney posed for a picture with -- and later signed the back of a photo of -- a woman carrying a sign comparing Osama bin Laden to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. When Romney was asked to apologize, his aides said Obama and others needed to "lighten up." When Romney was accused by Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, one of the contest's longer-term social conservatives, of supporting gay Boy Scout leaders, Romney spokesman Kevin Madden in late July issued a statement in blatant contradiction to the feel-good antidiscrimination campaign trail statements I had heard the candidate make just weeks before: "Governor Romney has been the most prominent, leading advocate of the family values platform in this campaign. … Governor Romney has been a supporter of the Boy Scouts and has said he supports their right to decide scouting policies."

In Council Bluffs, at the fundraiser for the Iowa Christian Alliance where Romney was the keynote speaker, a man sidled up to me and asked about my name and background. When I told him my geographic background, he replied knowingly, "Ah, a cosmopolitan" -- an ancient anti-Semitic code word for Jews. "We are hoping that whoever is elected will not forget this constituency," said Christian Alliance president Scheffler as he introduced Romney shortly thereafter.

Of course a Republican candidate will campaign for the votes of his conservative base, but a man beholden to such a base will be constrained in how he governs. Witness the revolt on the right over Bush's initial decision to appoint his long-time legal aide Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Not only did she lack the support of the conservative judicial activists, but there was a hint that she might have once held mildly tolerant views on abortion. The activists' opposition forced her to withdraw her candidacy.

Was Romney a relatively liberal Republican as Massachusetts governor? Yes. Did he help back service programs that Democrats can cheer? He did indeed. Again, however, the critical question is: Does any of that matter today? And here the answer is a decisive no. Over the course of the next six months, as Romney runs for the GOP nomination, story after story will review the course of his life, his time in the governor's mansion, even his father's influence on his personality and campaign style. None of that will matter, though. If you want to know about what kind of president Mitt Romney would be, all you have to do is listen to what he is promising, and to whom. As Bush himself once said: "Fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again." At least on that, we should hope Bush is right.