Slate national correspondent William Saletan was on our Facebook page to chat with readers about his series on the evolution of Mitt Romney’s abortion position. The following transcript of the discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Slate: Was Mitt Romney’s abortion evolution a flip-flop, a legitimate conversion, or something more complex? William Saletan exhaustively reported on nearly 50 years worth of Romney history to uncover a captivating portrait of an incredibly malleable candidate. Will is taking reader questions on the series right now.
Jordan Altobelli: “Conversion,” “malleable,” “evolving.”… Flip-flop is so much more succinct.
Will Saletan: I don't like flip-flop because it shortcuts the complexity of the shift. For example, Romney has an authentic history as a pro-life abortion counselor. How many other pols can say that?
Diane Wilson: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds: Emerson.
Will Saletan: I’ve tried to understand that Emerson quote and never succeeded. Can you explain what's the superior alternative to consistency?
Nathan Okerlund: I think Emerson would say that a non-little mind is capable of taking in new evidence, admitting error, and changing one’s views. I’d say that Mitt’s public pronouncements, on the evidence of your article, show that he has done step one, has actively avoided step two, and says he's done step three but hasn't really—but it's all moot because his position never really changed.
Will Saletan: Thanks for the explanation re Emerson, Nathan. Let's run Romney through the checklist. 1) new evidence: Well, embryo research wasn't an issue when he first ran for the Senate, so I guess you could make that point for him. But then, why didn't he say no embryos should be destroyed for research? Why only cloned embryos? 2) admitting error. Well, yes, but if he doesn't explain the nature of the error, then it just sort of amounts to a plea for a clean slate. I'm inclined not to give that, without more justification.
Will Saletan: On admitting error, sometimes he says he was wrong, but then sometimes he pretends he never said what he said. He's maddeningly resistant, probably because deep down, he knows he's the same guy who took the other position. That's just the nature of his underlying feelings: they're conflicted.
Nathan Okerlund: Of course, Emerson seems to be referring to ideas and convictions, rather than how one presents one's ideas and convictions, and it seems Mitt's convictions (such as they are) on the subject have stayed the same—it's the presentation that has changed.
Will Saletan: Yes, there's a lot of salesman in Romney. E.g., you sell the car by emphasizing color to one customer, but the warranty to another. That's why I find the Utah/Massachusetts pivot so interesting: it's the same position sold to two opposite audiences by emphasizing its alternative aspects.
Scott N. Carr: Like his position on virtually EVERY issue, it’s a matter of convenience, not conviction.
Will Saletan: Do you think convenience and conviction are mutually exclusive? In Romney's case, isn't it both? He has convictions on either side that he can emphasize, e.g. one way in Utah and the other way in Massachusetts?
Jeremy Stahl: You seem to come to the conclusion that malleability and calculation are just a part of who Mitt Romney is at his core, which I feel like is something that you could say about all politicians, but that he was always kind of personally centrist in his views on abortion until he started tacking to the right for political reasons. I’m wondering how you think he’d govern on this issue? For instance, do you think he’d nominate a justice who would overturn Roe v. Wade?
Will Saletan: I think he'd outsource abortion policy to the Christian right. He's made that pretty clear already. He wants the path of least resistance on these issues, since he doesn't want to focus on them. And the path of least resistance is to hand them over to the people within his constituency who care about them most.
Jeremy Stahl: What about the SCOTUS, though, which is one place where he'd have to be the decider? Say Anthony Kennedy retires under a President Romney. I'm pretty sure I've heard him says there's no litmus test, but I have to imagine if he nominates somebody too centrist he'd have a Harriet Miers style revolt on his hand (sorry to hit you with so many hypotheticals, but they're just so much fun).
Will Saletan: That's a trickier question. I don't think Romney would outsource Supreme Court appointments the same way he'd outsource the Mexico City policy. More likely, he'd vet his list with pro-life groups, but he'd focus more on a basically conservative judicial philosophy (e.g. about the role of legislators vs. judges). And his nominees would almost certainly be more acceptable to Democrats than Santorum's would. Not that I think there's much chance of Santorum becoming president.