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the national interest

Romney’s Eerie Post-Flip-Flop Consistency

DES MOINES, IA - DECEMBER 10: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney points to former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich as he speaks speak at the ABC News GOP Presidential Debate on the campus of Drake University on December 10, 2011 in Des Moines, Iowa. Rivals were expected to target front runner Gingrich in the debate hosted by ABC News, Yahoo News, WOI-TV, The Des Moines Register and the Iowa GOP.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) The handsome swindler versus the ne'er-do-well

When Mitt Romney decided to get Republican ideological-purity cautionary tale and non-witch Christine O’Donnell to announce her endorsement of him, he was probably thinking about how useful it would be to have the support of another staunch conservative. He may not have been thinking about some of the secondary issues involved in this plan, such as the fact that it would require O’Donnell to talk, which would involve her saying awkward things like, “he’s been consistent since he changed his mind.”

The line actually gets to the nub of the conservative question on Romney. Since he changed his mind, he has indeed been dogmatically consistent. (In contrast to Newt Gingrich.) But why?

One of the most revealing stories I’ve seen on Romney was written by Jonathan Weisman last month in The Wall Street Journal. In it, Weisman chronicles the degree to which Romney simply flipped a switch in 2005, deciding virtually overnight to stop courting moderates and liberals he needed to get elected in Massachusetts and to start courting the right. The switch occurred across the board, on social as well as economic issues:

A gun-rights lobbyist, Jim Wallace, found himself battling the governor over firearms fees and hunters' priorities. A low point for Mr. Wallace came one day in July 2004 when Gov. Romney was set to sign a bill that banned assault weapons but that also had some provisions gun-rights groups liked. Mr. Wallace had an invitation to speak at the signing ceremony.

At the last minute, a gun-control activist, Jon Rosenthal, got an invitation too. Not only that, but as Mr. Rosenthal rushed into the news conference, he says he saw Romney aides pulling up the name tags taped to the floor that showed where each guest was to stand —tearing up the paper with Mr. Wallace's name and replacing it with one bearing his own name. The gun-control advocate was placed close to the governor and got the speaking slot that Mr. Wallace, the gun-rights lobbyist, had expected.

Yet in the following year, 2005, both sides on the gun issue noticed a change.

In May of that year, Mr. Romney declared a "Right to Bear Arms Day." Mr. Wallace's group, the Gun Owners' Action League, began having nearly monthly meetings with the governor's top aides, he says. Mr. Romney signed legislation cutting some red tape detested by gun owners in November 2005, and less than a year later he became a lifetime member of the N.R.A.

The positive interpretation of this narrative, if you’re a conservative, is that Romney will stay bought — he decided to ingratiate himself with the right, and he needs to retain the right's support to accomplish anything. That’s more or less the argument Ramesh Ponnuru made in his National Review cover story endorsing him. The negative interpretation is that Romney is essentially running a con, though it’s impossible to tell if he was conning Massachusetts then or is conning Republicans now. (My guess, based on Romney’s admiration for his moderate father, is that he’s conning conservatives now, but I can’t really be certain.) When you’re running a con, of course you stay consistent – you have to keep up the front, no matter what.

The robotic consistency of Romney’s newfound conservatism does contrast sharply with Gingrich, who lurches between hysterical right-wing paranoia and bouts of bipartisanship. And yet the erratic character of Gingrich’s swings suggests that they’re unplanned, and thus that they spring from actual conviction, albeit momentary convictions. Gingrich actually believes what he is advocating at the moment he is advocating it. Nobody can plausibly say the same of Romney.

Romney is the handsome swindler who plots to win your mother's heart and make off with her fortune. Gingrich is like the husband who periodically gets drunk and runs off to spend a week with a stripper in a low-rent motel but always comes home in the end. Which one would you rather see your mother marry?

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Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images