Three years ago, conservative Republicans were falling all over themselves to support Mitt Romney in the Republican primary over John McCain. McCain was considered too moderate, and by the time the Republican primary came around, many conservatives had soured on Mike Huckabee, having heard rumors he was staying in the race as a spoiler purposely to help McCain win.
Fast forward to 2011. What has changed since then? Romney left office as governor of Massachusetts in 2007, choosing not to seek reelection. Other than writing a book and assisting with a couple of political campaigns, he has not done much. Yet now that Romney is the GOP frontrunner, many conservatives are speaking up against him.
Popular conservative websites like Free Republic and Red State have taken a noticeable slant against Romney. National Tea Party leader Lloyd Marcus, chairman of the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama, has made it a campaign priority to stop Romney from getting the GOP nomination. In response to this onslaught of new attacks from the right, a website entitled WhyRomney.com was set up to debunk accusations that Romney is too liberal.
Romney is accused of flip-flopping on issues, and has come under especially heavy criticism for signing healthcare legislation as Massachusetts governor implementing an individual mandate. As Massachusetts governor, Romney was forced to work with a state legislature that was 84 percent Democrat. In order to getting anything passed in one of the most liberal states in the country, Romney was forced to make a few compromises. Romneycare was a bipartisan plan directed at insuring the uninsured, using the private sector to provide those services. The main goal was to cut down on the costs of emergency room services used by the uninsured. In contrast, Obamacare is a federal government takeover of everyone’s healthcare which also includes a public option. Leading conservative thinkers like Newt Gingrich support individual healthcare mandates, which Gingrich distinguishes from the draconian requirements of Obamacare mandates.
Romney worked with the conservative Heritage Foundation to craft the legislation. One Heritage writer thought it was one of the best healthcare solutions out there, “In reality, those who want to create a consumer-based health system and deregulate health insurance should view Romney's plan as one of the most promising strategies out there.” Another Heritage author encouraged other states to adopt the Massachusetts model. Three years ago, the most conservative Senator in the U.S. Senate, Jim DeMint, praised the Massachusetts healthcare plan, which he later said was hijacked by the Democrat legislature. The Democrat-controlled legislature overrode eight of Romney’s vetoes on parts of the legislation, including a provision forcing small businesses participate.
Romney has become more conservative over the years, much like Ronald Reagan who used to be a Democrat. Romney became pro-life in 2005 when he became aware of the atrocity of embryonic stem cell research. Reagan also switched from pro-choice to pro-life. While Governor of California, Reagan signed a bill into law relaxing restrictions on abortions. Both former presidents Bush switched to a pro-life position on abortion, as has Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey. Many conservatives who are quick to criticize Romney for changing his position on abortion will in the same breath say they support pro-choice Condoleezza Rice for president.
Many of the actions Romney took while governor have been characterized as more liberal than they really were. Romney has consistently opposed gay marriage. He opposed civil unions except for once in an effort to get the Massachusetts Supreme Court to back off from legalizing gay marriage. When the court insisted on legalizing gay marriage anyway, Romney attempted to hold a Constitutional Convention to stop it. The one controversial area he has expressed support for in the past is domestic partner benefits. However, at the same time in 2004 and 2006 Romney expressed support for the Federal Marriage Amendment.
Romney has been accused of supporting gun control and expanding the Assault Weapons ban in Massachusetts. The reality is every year he was governor he worked with the NRA on legislation making small reforms to Massachusetts’ existing draconian gun control laws, considered a step forward for gunowners by the NRA. In 2005, he issued a proclamation declaring May 7 “Right to Bear Arms Day.” Gun Owners Action League, the Massachusetts gun organization, issued these statements about Romney’s record, “During the Romney Administration, no anti-second amendment or anti-sportsmen legislation made its way to the Governor’s desk. Governor Romney did sign five pro-second amendment/pro-sportsmen bills into law.”
Not all of Romney’s positions are defensible from a conservative perspective. Although he opposed the auto bailouts, he has characterized the bank bailouts as “unfortunate but necessary.” His record on environmental issues is somewhat sketchy for a conservative, although not as bad as it has been portrayed.
Underlying the criticism is a sense that some of the opposition is due to Romney’s Mormon religious faith. 19% of Republicans surveyed in a recent Associated Press/Gfk poll say they are less likely to vote for a Mormon. 30% of Christian conservatives, the largest voting bloc in the GOP, express reservations about voting for a Mormon. Some Romney supporters believe that calling Romney a “flip-flopper” is a disguised way of attacking his religion, since the label has not stuck with any of his opponents.
Romney has greatly downplayed his religion. When he ran for president in 2008, he compared himself to John F. Kennedy in his personal separation of church and state. Other presidents have been members of non-mainstream religions. Presidents Nixon and Hoover were Quakers. Four presidents have been Unitarians. When John F. Kennedy ran for president, Catholicism was viewed with suspicion.
The question for many seems to come down to this: Can you support a president even if you do not like his religion? For those Christians who believe that the Mormon religion is a cult, can they separate the two, or can they not get past their concern that a Mormon president will promote or enhance the Mormon religion to the discomfort of their beliefs?
Ultimately, the criticism may not matter. Romney has more money than any of the other candidates. He has an extensive nationwide campaign team in place and a ground game strategy in all of the early primary states. He is polling in first or close second place in Iowa and New Hampshire. He performs well in the political debates, unlike Rick Perry. He is the only candidate to steadily maintain over 20 percent of the vote in polls.
In recent years, GOP presidential nominees have run and lost once before winning the nomination. Their issues that tend to make GOP primary voters uncomfortable are vetted the first time around, making them less contentious the second time. Fewer voters polled have a problem with supporting a Mormon candidate than they did last election. Republican voters usually pick the respectable, safe pick. Conservatives Jay Sekulow, Robert Bork, Ann Coulter, Hugh Hewitt, and Congressman Darrell Issa are supporting Romney, and Senator Jim DeMint, who previously supported him in 2008, may support him again.
The economy is the top issue on voters’ minds right now. Romney’s past executive experience as governor, combined with his success turning private businesses around in the private sector, give people confidence that he will be able to bring the country out of the recession.
The true test of whether Romney can be trusted as a real conservative will be whether he stays to the right. While he has moved to the right on most issues, his positions on environmental issues and the Wall Street bailouts are troubling. He still needs to convince conservatives that he has also moved to the right on those issues.
So far while running for president Romney has generally stuck to conservative positions and has not flopped back to the left. There has been some quibbling over some of the language he uses at times, but generally there is little indication that he intends to return to his prior liberal positions. This is unlike Rick Perry who still defends his liberal position on illegal immigration, labeling conservatives “heartless” in September who do not support his bill that granted in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants.
Mitt Romney is no John McCain. His record is that of an elected official who has become more conservative over the years, not one that has consistently waffled back and forth. Instead of labeling Romney a flip-flopper, why not see him as a convert?