There are a couple especially odd moments in that old footage of Romney’s 1994 Senate debate that struck me when I watched it recently.  First, he affirms that he believes that abortion should be “safe and legal,” going on to say that he has held that view ever since his mother took that position during her 1970 run for Senate.     

The even more odd moment comes a little later, when he explains why he and his mother took that view.  As he is fleshing out his commitment to a “woman’s right to choose” and defending himself against Kennedy’s “multiple choice” accusation, he comes up with a personal tearjerker story worthy of Al Gore: a “dear family relative” of his had died from an illegal abortion, which was what had convinced him and his mother to defend “abortion rights.”  “It is since that time that my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter.”  His mother’s 1970 Senate campaign was apparently a pivotal moment in the evolution of Mitt Romney, since he reiterated his story about it just five years ago, as recounted by Jennifer Rubin in The Weekly Standard this week:

In much the same manner as he had done in the 1994 Senate debates, Romney repeated his pro-choice views later that year in the October 2002 gubernatorial debates, even invoking his mother, Lenore Romney, who favored abortion rights when she ran for the U.S. Senate in Michigan in 1970. 

Now, after at least 32-34 years of consistently following through on that conviction informed by the loss of his relative, he had a change of heart because…someone talked to him about stem-cell extraction?  It just doesn’t track.  (It also doesn’t help that the account of his ”road to Damascus” meeting with Dr. Melton doesn’t match up with Melton’s view.)  Virtually no one becomes pro-life by way of concerns about ESCR–usually, one opposes ESCR as the logical conclusion of an already serious pro-life view.  From The Boston Globe’s feature on Romney’s “evolution”:

“In considering the issue of embryo cloning and embryo farming, I saw 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,” Romney wrote in an op-ed in the Globe that July.  

His statement is correct, but think about how he phrases this.  The “harsh logic of abortion can lead” to embryo farming, and Romney is right to abhor this (if, in fact, he does abhor it), yet for millions of people it is much easier to see the evil of killing a fetus or an even more fully developed child in the womb while the importance of protecting human life to its earliest stages appears increasingly abstract and difficult to follow.    You don’t need to follow the “harsh logic of abortion” to its ultimate conclusions to see how profoundly unethical and wrong abortion is, but can see in the basic assumptions of personal choice, autonomy and “rights” that allow such a horror the unethical nature of the act.  In the killing of partly and mostly fully developed children in utero, one has all the evidence one needs for the evil of the act.  Does Romney really mean to tell us that until 2004 he hadn’t noticed any possible ethical problems with killing unborn children in the second or third trimesters?  It required an insight into the processes of ESCR to convince him that something unethical was going on? 

If he has, in fact, had an “awakening” on this and related matters, that’s well and good, but why should anyone particularly trust a Johnny Come Lately to the issue with the presidential nomination?  (Speaking of which, while Brownback was freezing on the Mall marching in the March for Life, Romney was in Israel helping to stir the pot for a new war with Iran–now tell me who has the greater credibility as a defender of human life?)  Why should anyone assume that he would expend real political capital in trying to effect meaningful changes in the law or in appointing suitable judges to the bench, when he has only just yesterday discovered his commitment to the sanctity of life?  More to the point, virtually no one goes through most of his life believing that it is fundamentally wrong and inappropriate to “impose” moral beliefs on others and then discover, after having the highly technical question of stem-cell extraction presented to you, that he should start imposing those beliefs.  It is such a rare, fundamental and complete transformation of the entire view of the appropriate relationship between “personal beliefs” (as Romney had always called them before) and public policy that it would have to make any observer very skeptical. 

That his change to being pro-life would come by way of one of the most convoluted areas of the debate and one of the thornier questions in bioethics has to strike a neutral observer as odd at best.  Those who already have reason to distrust Romney can hardly take it seriously.  That his change of mind has just happened to coincide with Mitt Romney’s appearance on the national scene and his preparation for bigger and better things beyond Massachusetts is too perfect.  The entire ”evolution” of Romney is like a how-to guide for politicians to do complete 180s while pretending to appear deeply thoughtful and committed to whichever new position he takes.  The problem is that he was already setting himself up for the national stage by the time when, in mid-2005, he finally (for the first time) declared himself to be pro-life, so his “deeply thoughtful” stage comes off appearing as little more than early pandering.   

Romney might or might not have actually believed his tearjerker story at the time that he recounted it in 1994, but how is this really any different from Al Gore’s pained remembrance, c. 1996, of his sister’s death from lung cancer (and thus his deep, personal motivation to fight Big Tobacco) that had replaced his former enthusiasm for the stuff?  Back in ‘88 he said, as some will remember, “Throughout most of my life, I raised tobacco. I want you to know that with my own hands, all of my life, I put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I’ve hoed it. I’ve chopped it. I’ve shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it.”  His sister had, of course, died in 1984, so it evidently took a while for the evils of tobacco to become apparent to him.  In a similar way, through 2002 Romney seems to have clearly held fast to an Obama-like shtick about not wanting to endanger women’s lives by outlawing abortion and even had a personal story that he could use to convince people of the sincerity of his commitment not to “impose” his beliefs about abortion on other people.  What is to stop him from reverting to form and returning to the position he held quite comfortably for three decades?  You can almost see the national address in which a President Romney (let’s just imagine this impossibility for argument’s sake) describes his thoughtful and difficult discovery that, actually, it is wrong to impose his personal beliefs on others and his brief flirtation with pro-life views was simply another part of his ongoing “evolution.”  “You live and learn,” he will say.

There is great wisdom in the Psalmist when he says, “Trust ye not in princes.”  If the defense of human life remains bound up in the arcana of intra-GOP political squabbles, it will continue to be exploited as a way to mobilise voters and dupe those voters into supporting candidates who may not really share their commitments.  It will continue to be diverted to the margins and pro-lifers will probably achieve far less this way than if they diverted most of their energies to changing cultural attitudes through other kinds of work and advocacy.  The conscious and unconscious modeling of the pro-life movement as a political struggle movement borrowing its templates from abolitionism and civil rights activism is unfortunate in many ways, but it is most unfortunate in its fixation on finding redress through the political process.  Tere is a basic incongruity between the goals of the pro-life  movement and the fixation on using the mechanisms of government to advance that movement’s goals; the movements whose rhetoric pro-lifers copy were progressive movements that were well-suited to the encouragement of government activism and the violation of precedents, while pro-lifers have long been diametrically opposed to these things. 

Because so many pro-life activists have been geared towards politics for so long, this has encouraged in them the tendency to accept spokesmen for their cause who usually give their issues the most basic lip service, a little access and not much else.  For their pains, they have received two Court nominees who affirmed in sworn testimony that they considered Roe the settled law of the land–and this has been their greatest “victory” in twenty years!  They console themselves with the idea that “at least they [Roberts and Alito] probably won’t make it any worse,” yet it was a Court with a majority of Republican appointees who decided Casey, cementing Roe into the legal structure as sure as anything could have.  When push comes to shove, I think we all know that the Roberts Court will reconfirm those rulings if the opportunity arises.  Those appointees got there in part because pro-lifers backed the Presidents who nominated them, because pro-lifers were satisfied with occasional nods to their concerns and nothing more.  By putting such an emphasis on capturing the Presidency as the means to their success, and consequently settling for nominees who simply had to mouth the right pious phrases during the campaign, pro-lifers have set themselves up time and again to be ignored and marginalised once the elections have come and gone.  In the rush of some pro-life Christians and conservatives to the Romney banner, we see the same farce unfolding before us yet again.  This time, it is even more inexcusable, when there are at least two reasonably credible pro-life Republicans running against Romney, at least one of whom has an outside chance at being competitive.  

Invariably, politicians will be unreliable and untrustworthy.  That is a given, and anyone disappointed by politicians would be well-advised to stop expecting much at all from them.  Even Mr. Bush, who at least had a longer record of at least publicly posing as someone who was pro-life than Romney has had, has been fairly abysmal when it comes to what should have been the relatively easy decision about whether to allow federal funding for stem-cell research (his mighty veto of last year was simply a veto of a bill that would have increased the funding levels he had previously approved).  Imagine what kinds of compromises and sell-outs Romney might accept.  The sincerity of his ”conversion” is almost beside the point, since it is potential lack of commitment for such a recent “convert” that strikes his critics as a key problem. 

Update: Referring to the Planned Parenthood questionnaire Romney filled out in 2002, Matt Yglesias makes a good, concluding point:

As you can see in the Medicaid answer, he wasn’t even a moderate on the issue — Romney was taking a strong, strong pro-choice stance. Maybe pro-lifers just enjoy being lied to, but I think it’s got to be obvious at this point that you can’t trust anything Romney says on the subject of what he thinks about political issues. It doesn’t seem like a quality you’d want in a presidential nominee.

I think many pro-lifers really want to believe that someone could go from Obamaesque levels of support for abortion to Brownbackian fervour opposing it.  These folks really want to believe that the obvious rightness of their position should win over their most staunch adversaries.  According to the questionnaire he filled out five years ago, Romney used to be one of the most staunch adversaries of the culture of life and has now supposedly become one of the most staunch advocates of the same.  Indeed, Romney seems to be counting on the idea that the extreme and brazen nature of his flip-flopping proves that it isn’t just flip-flopping, but a real change of heart.  I can’t rule out that it is genuine (unlike Mr. Bush, I do not possess heart and soul-vision), but usually when a candidate repudiates a view he has apparently held for decades at the moment when he is preparing to run for higher office (where said older view would be a distinct liability with his future core constituents) we do not assume this is proof of the man’s deep spiritual journey or a miraculous awakening.  No, we assume that he is a fraud and a liar.  Why should we assume anything else in Romney’s case?  Because we like the sound of the lies he is telling us?