The 2012 election season must have started because Mitt Romney is already posturing for Republican primary voters by repudiating the tax deal that Obama negotiated with Senate Republicans. I’m less concerned with the merits of Romney’s argument than the skepticism in conservative circles that he really believes what he’s saying. This tweet from John Podhoretz about the Romney op-ed is representative of a lot of conservative opinion: “And the Mitt Romney, Most Inauthentic Politician in America, Drive to the Presidency continues.” We’ll be hearing a lot about Romney for the next couple of years, so it’s worth remembering how his authenticity problem arose and why it persists.
When running unsuccessfully for the Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney was obliged to rebut the charge that his Mormonism inclined him to a social conservatism that was out of step with his prospective constituents. To that end, he proclaimed his commitment to abortion rights in no uncertain terms, and reaffirmed it even more emphatically when he ran successfully in the Massachusetts gubernatorial election of 2002. Yet in 2006, having decided to offer himself for the 2008 presidential nomination of the staunchly pro-life Republican Party, Romney started telling conservatives that he’d lately gotten in touch with his inner pro-lifer.
This presented Romney with a formidable rhetorical challenge: how was he to explain his belated change of heart in a way that would convince social conservatives in the Republican base that he’d be a trustworthy protector of unborn life? He might have gotten some points for honesty had he conceded that he’d always been pro-life but had kept it to himself in order to ingratiate himself to Massachusetts voters. But we all know that’s the sort of thing that no one running seriously for the presidential nomination of a major party can afford to say.
So Romney had to insist that both his earlier pro-choice professions and his current pro-life ones were heartfelt. His views changed dramatically, he explained, as a consequence of an eye-opening discussion about embryonic stem cell research and cloning he had with a scientist in 2005. The conversation made him appreciate “where the harsh logic of abortion can lead—to the view of innocent new life as nothing more than research material or a commodity to be exploited." Having suddenly seen the error of his pro-choice ways, he was now ready to stand and be counted among the defenders of unborn life.
Romney had to know that this was a tough sell. You’d have to be blind to miss two red flags raised by his story that cast doubt on the authenticity of his conversion. First, where had Romney been? The morality of abortion has been a bone of contention in our politics for over thirty years. 2005 was a little late in the day for a middle-aged politician to be having epiphanies about the sanctity of unborn life. Second, you could only marvel at the timing of Romney’s epiphany. It came at exactly the moment when Romney no longer needed the political capital associated with being pro-choice in Massachusetts politics, and just in time to court the votes of pro-life conservatives in upcoming Republican presidential primaries.
But let’s be charitable enough not to dwell on these improbabilities. Romney’s story was still hard to take seriously when it’s seen in the context of the reasons ideologues have for their views on abortion. As a result of the sustained collective deliberation on that issue in conservative and liberal circles, those reasons are unusually coherent and powerful. It’s only fair to assess the credibility of Romney’s explanation of his conversion against that standard.
Thoughtful pro-lifers don’t deny that, given the green light, medical researchers could put embryonic stem cells to indisputably good uses. It follows from their belief in the sanctity unborn life, however, that the value of preserving it overrides whatever good consequences may flow from its destruction. They think it’s unconditionally wrong to sacrifice unborn human life for the benefit of other people, even when the sacrifice redounds to the great good of a great many other people. In their view, you shouldn’t abort a fetus or destroy an embryo to harvest stem cells for the same reason you shouldn’t cut up a healthy person for spare parts that would save several lives. That’s what it means to say that fetuses have a right to life. Whether or not you agree, that’s a perfectly intelligible position.
So is the view of abortion rights advocates. They can and usually do acknowledge that unborn life has considerable value, and therefore want, all things being equal, to minimize the number of abortions. They’re inclined to agree with Bill Clinton that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” But liberals wouldn’t be pro-choice if they didn’t believe that, taken together, countervailing values like women’s health, reproductive autonomy and social equality carry enough weight on the deliberative scales sometimes to tilt the balance against preserving unborn life.
Stated this abstractly, the pro-life and pro-choice positions exhaust the moral possibilities; in cases where the life of the mother doesn’t hang in the balance, unborn life is either always more valuable than the goods realized through its destruction or it isn’t. From 1994 until 2005, Romney says he believed that whatever value attached to the preservation of unborn life could be outweighed by countervailing values. In 2005, contemplating the prospect that human embryos would be used to cure horrible diseases—a consideration which, if anything, argues for the permissibility of destroying unborn life—he concluded that values realized by means of unborn life’s destruction were immeasurably less important, relative to the value of its protection, than he’d thought.
Sorry, but that’s just weird. It’s a little like deciding that the price one has always been happy to pay for a bushel of apples is way too high because the grocer decided to reward a loyal customer by throwing in a basket of delicious grapes at no extra charge. Maybe the apples really are worth a lot less than one thought, although it’s a little strange that one never noticed that before. But what could the grapes have to do with it?
Lots of prominent politicians, notably Ronald Reagan and Ted Kennedy, have changed their tune about abortion without it being held against them by their party’s base. But, to my knowledge, no one has ever done it as abruptly, and explained it as feebly as Romney. That's a hard thing to overcome in a political party that's enthralled by Sarah Palin's authenticity. Moreover, Romney will probably have to conjure up yet another conversion experience to explain how he could support RomneyCare so enthusiastically and oppose ObamaCare so emphatically a couple of years later. Watching him try will be one of the wicked pleasures of the next election cycle.