Sunday, August 5, 2007
Very Well, Then: Slowly but surely, Mitt Romney is winning the Republican nomination. He is virtually unopposed in next Saturday's Iowa straw poll. In futures markets and national polls, he still runs third or fourth. But in both Iowa and New Hampshire, where the race is usually decided, Romney is seven points ahead.
The other leading candidates all have good reasons why they should be beating Romney. John McCain is a more authentic conservative; Rudy Giuliani's résumé starts with 9/11, not the Salt Lake City Olympics; Fred Thompson is famously down-to-earth, not a cyborg from another planet. Yet so far, the phony, mediocre, paranormal candidate is winning.
The other Republicans may be hard-pressed to stop Romney, but Romney can. To clinch the nomination, Romney still has to persuade Republican primary voters to forgive him for switching sides on most issues they care about.
On the campaign trail, Romney is followed by a man in a dolphin costume, carrying a sign that says, "Ask Flip Anything." As his opponents keep pointing out, Romney's ideological evolution on abortion, guns, and gay rights isn't pretty. His clumsy attempts to explain himself have usually backfired, as when he tried to overcome conservative qualms about his support for the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban by claiming to be a lifelong hunter and lifetime member of the NRA.
Romney's abortion answer is particularly unconvincing. He says he has always been "personally pro-life" but was "effectively pro-choice" until halfway through his governorship, when he decided he was wrong and "needed to be pro-life."
That explanation is far too Flip for most conservatives. So, Romney seems to be trying out a new flip-flop strategy: Instead of parsing his contradictions, he embraces them.
When a man in Eldora, Iowa, asked him about abortion last week, Romney tried to turn flip-flopping into a virtue. "If changing your mind is a problem in this country, we're in trouble," he said. "I won't apologize for changing to pro-life." Romney even invokes Reagan's history on abortion, suggesting that a change of heart is Reagan-esque, not Flipper-esque.
In Sunday's Republican debate in Iowa, Romney managed to score points by attacking Sam Brownback for attacking his abortion flip-flop: "I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they've been pro-life longer than I have."
Embracing one's contradictions is as opportunistic as explaining them. But this approach offers three distinct political advantages. It skips the embarrassing details. It sounds both humble ("I was wrong") and defiant ("I won't apologize for telling you what you want to hear"). And best of all, it's the flip that keeps on giving. A frequent flipper like Romney can't afford to spend all his time apologizing—or not apologizing. But as the most changed mind in the race, if he can persuade voters that changing one's mind is a sign of courage and leadership, he'll win in a walk.