Ever since Mitt Romney and Rick Perry’s testy exchange in the last Republican debate, accusations and counter-accusations have flown back and forth in their competing press releases. Romney accuses Perry of having the same stance as Obama on illegal immigration. Having any similarity to Obama is an insult of the highest order among Republicans, notwithstanding the fact that Obama has actually stepped up border control and deportation of illegal immigrants. Romney—an inveterate liar and flip-flopper who is bound by no limitations of shame or integrity—also mocks Perry’s “Pinocchio problem.”
Every politician panders, but Mitt Romney is a special case. It is not just that Romney panders more frequently and absurdly, although he does. It’s the total lack of human emotion that allows him to do so. When you watch a human being lie on the campaign trail—Barack Obama claiming he opposes gay marriage, for example—you can sense him wincing. Most people become visibly uncomfortable when lying. To increase their comfort, and limit their vulnerability to charges of flip-flopping, most politicians struggle to explain how a new position adopted out of political expediency is actually consistent with an older one. That’s how you make gaffes like John Kerry’s infamous claim that he “was for the $87 billion [in supplemental Iraq War funds] before I was against it.”
Not Romney. Romney evinces no problem taking the most left-wing position on a topic one day and the most right-wing position the next. Romney, like a robot programmed to tell everyone what they want to hear, just acts as if nothing he said or did in the past ever happened. With his square features, perfectly coiffed hair, boxy suits, focus-grouped zingers and poll-tested positions, Romney comes across not so much as a person running for president as he does a machine fabricated to imitate one. Supposedly voters adore folksy politicians like George W. Bush and recoil from stiff automatons like Al Gore. But it is actually the brazenness and inhumanity of Romney’s pandering that has kept him in contention.
When Romney entered national politics in 2007, his need to distance himself from his past was seen as a liability. Coming on the heels of Bush’s effective smear campaign against John Kerry as an inconstant flip-flopping pansy, being an inauthentic patrician from Massachusetts was assumed to be an almost insurmountable challenge for Romney. His history as a moderate and the dramatic policy reversals he made to run for president as a Republican were seen as nearly disqualifying.
But, strangely, Romney has survived it all, even as his party has moved dramatically to the right. It turns out that Romney’s complete lack of honesty or scruples is an asset on the campaign trail. A mere mortal like Kerry might tie himself into knots trying to square his current positions with his past ones. Romney feels no such obligation. In 2008 he was for fiscal stimulus in the form of tax breaks and infrastructure spending. Now he says the law that did just that was “a failure” and that “government cannot create jobs.” He claimed in 1994 that he was more liberal on gay rights than Ted Kennedy and in 2002 that he was as prochoice as his Democratic gubernatorial opponent Shannon O’Brien. Now he opposes abortion rights, wants to reinstate “don’t ask, don’t tell” and supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But Romney makes no effort to claim that these views are somehow consistent with his past. He has made no mea culpa as to why he made the wrong choice in his first political incarnation the way that Democrats who supported the Iraq War like John Edwards and Hillary Clinton did. He simply acts as if he has always been a staunch social conservative, and he even has the audacity to question the conservative bona fides of his opponents.
In the last election Rudy Giuliani started out trying to reposition himself as anti-abortion. When it was revealed that he had donated to Planned Parenthood over a decade earlier, Giuliani concluded that he couldn’t plausibly sell the claim that he opposes abortion and just campaigned as an abortion rights supporter who would appoint “strict constructionist” judges. (“Strict constructionist” being Republican code for willing to overturn Roe v. Wade.) In retrospect, Giulliani should have just brazenly flip-flopped. After all, it has worked for Romney.
Rather than trying to come up with some tortured rationale for how his current positions and his past ones fit together, Romney adopts totally contrary positions without a trace of nuance. He claimed in Massachusetts that he wasn’t just a moderate Republican on social issues but as liberal as any Democrat. Now he claims not to be center-right but a doctrinaire social conservative. Both are equally false, but it would be just as dishonest if Romney said he was a moderate. Romney is nothing and everything at once. But because moderate Republicans are more sophisticated than conservative Republicans, they give him a winking pass on his extremist statements, confident he is really one of them. Meanwhile, social conservatives have a healthy skepticism towards Romney, but can be wooed by his perverse attacks on Rick Perry. In the last debate Romney successfully went after Perry for not being vociferous enough in his desire to punish the children of undocumented immigrants for their parents’ sins. It seems unlikely that Romney really hates illegal immigrants and that he really feels strongly that their children should pay out-of-state tuition at public universities. Romney has been known to hire undocumented workers as gardeners. But it doesn’t matter. Romney sees demagoguery against illegal immigrants as being in his interest, so he goes after them full-throttle. If his interests change, his stance will too. And the conservatives who voted for him will feel just as misled as the Massachusetts Democrats who helped Romney get to where he is.