In the last Republican debate on Thursday night Fox News’s Chris Wallace asked Mitt Romney about his alleged flip-flop from gay rights advocate when he ran for Senate in 1994 to gay rights opponent when he began running for president in 2007. Romney replied that he has consistently taken the same position. “I do not believe in discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation…. There was a member of my administration, my cabinet, who was gay. I didn’t ask justices that I was looking to appoint, rather, applicants for jobs, what their sexual orientation was…. At the same time, Chris, in 1994, and throughout my career, I’ve said I oppose same-sex marriage.”

Some would argue that opposing marriage rights for same-sex couples is endorsing anti-gay discrimination. You could also say that the world has changed a lot since 1994, so supporting equality for gays in the workplace but not at the marriage altar for the last eighteen years means you’ve moved from being relatively supportive of gay rights to relatively opposed. This, of course, is perfect for Romney: he appealed to the liberal Massachusetts electorate as a relative liberal and appeals now to the conservative Republican national electorate as a relative conservative while nominally staying true to the same principles.

But Romney’s answer contained a misleading sleight of hand. He gives examples of his not discriminating personally against his employees for being gay, but that is not the same thing as opposing workplace discrimination as a political matter. Romney is saying, to his credit, that he doesn’t practice workplace discrimination. One would hope that would go without saying in this day and age, but since Romney’s former opponent Herman Cain pledged not to appoint Muslims, it’s probably worth stating outright. However, a politician could choose not to discriminate in his own hiring practices while refusing to extend that protection to gays throughout the government, much less to the private sector. Libertarian conservatives such as Barry Goldwater and Bill Buckley, who opposed the Civil Rights Act, argued exactly that: discrimination is morally wrong, but it isn’t the government’s role to impose its morality on private businesses. On a less intellectually abstract level, your average Republican simply conflates personal and political discrimination, as Romney does. Many Republicans and conservatives bristle at the suggestion that they are racists, pointing out that they aren’t personally prejudiced and demanding to know how dare a stranger such as a liberal journalist or political scientist claim to know what’s in their heart. What they fail to recognize is that it is far more important that a politician support legal efforts to combat discrimination than whether they personally appoint minorities or gays to their cabinet. The terms of George W. Bush, when he eviscerated the ability of the Department of Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to combat racial discrimination and appointed anti–civil rights judges, were bad years for racial progress, his appointment of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state notwithstanding.

So, in his capacity as a politician who takes positions on civil rights legislation and enforcement, is it even true that Romney opposes workplace discrimination against gays? It’s unclear, and it appears that he has indeed flip-flopped on that essential question. Back in Romney’s 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy, Romney pledged in a letter to the Log Cabin Republicans: “As we seek to establish full equality for America’s gay and lesbian citizens, I will provide more effective leadership than my opponent.” He reiterated that promise in interviews throughout the campaign. Specifically, he promised to co-sponsor the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in the Senate. He never got the chance, having lost to Kennedy.

In December 2007 Romney appeared on Meet the Press and was asked by Tim Russert whether he still supports ENDA. Here’s how the exchange went:

MR. RUSSERT: You said [in 1994] that you would sponsor [Sen. Ted Kennedy’s federal] Employment Nondiscrimination Act. Do you still support it?

 GOV. ROMNEY:  At the state level.  I think it makes sense at the state level for states to put in provision of this.

MR. RUSSERT:  Now, you said you would sponsor it at the federal level.

GOV. ROMNEY:  I would not support at the federal level, and I changed in that regard because I think that policy makes more sense to be evaluated or to be implemented at the state level. 

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. Saying “this progressive reform is great at the state level but tyranny at the federal level” is Romney’s defense for having signed a universal health insurance law as governor of Massachusetts. Romney’s effort to toss gays under the bus to further his presidential ambitions met with limited success at the time. Some social conservatives attacked him for backing ENDA even at the state level. Obviously, as president he would only be able to sign or veto federal legislation. So he is, for all intents and purposes, against civil rights for gays in the workplace.

In this campaign cycle Romney hasn’t addressed ENDA directly. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the question. But if Romney’s position is the same as in the last campaign, he lied in Thursday’s debate, both by saying he opposes discrimination and by saying he hasn’t changed his position since 1994.