Thursday, March 7, 2013 | 2:02 a.m.
It’s not often that anyone in my household declares: “The one thing I absolutely, positively have to do this weekend is watch ‘Fox News Sunday.’” But last weekend was one of those times. Why? Because Mitt Romney was emerging from his post-campaign cocoon to sit down with Chris Wallace.
As someone who liked the progressive Romney who ran in Massachusetts for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and the moderate Romney who campaigned for governor in 2002, only to be nonplussed when he began systematically jettisoning principles and positions preparatory to running nationally, I was genuinely curious.
With his days as a candidate over, would Romney be candid about why his campaign had failed? Having run in an election cycle when mainstream Republicanism was under assault by Tea Party ideologues, would he offer some lessons in electoral realism for the party he briefly led?
In two words, no and no. The interview was notable not for Romney’s candid critique of his own failed effort or for his observations about the tug of war inside today’s GOP but rather for its lack of either.
When Wallace asked him whether the long, bitter primary campaign had forced him further to the right and thus hurt his general election chances, Romney replied: “The idea that somehow the primary made me become more conservative than I was just isn’t accurate.”
Now, when Mitt makes statements that seem utterly preposterous, he usually has a secret linguistic trap door that lets him escape the realm of conventionally understood truth without actually taking refuge in out-and-out falsity. Here, it’s likely this: Romney executed most of his major flip-flops in preparation for his 2008 campaign, which meant he didn’t have many moderate stands to abandon by the time 2012 rolled around.
But wait, a close observer might ask, what about the individual health insurance mandate, the idea at the core of both Romneycare and Obamacare? Once, Mitt had held up Romneycare as a conservative model for health care policy. When President Barack Obama adopted the idea, however, it became radioactive for Republicans. So Romney responded like a political contortionist, standing by Romneycare on the state level while vowing that it was crucial to repeal Obamacare nationally.
All of which made it (unintentionally) ironic when Romney offered his thoughts about why Obama had beaten him. “Obamacare was very attractive, particularly to those without health insurance.” And: “The Obamacare attractiveness ... was something we underestimated, particularly among lower incomes.” Oh, those perplexing lower-income types! Who could have imagined that, like the rest of us, they actually prefer to receive medical care when they need it?
No, the real problem with the long primary contest, Romney averred, is that you sometimes get asked questions that “end up hurting you in the general.” He cited this example: The GOP debate in which the candidates all raised their hands to say they’d reject a budget deal even if it offered $10 in spending cuts for each new dollar in revenue.
Here, logic interjected itself in the form of Wallace’s next question: Why didn’t Romney say he’d take the deal? “Because if you’ve said that you’re not going to raise taxes, then they’d say, ‘Romney’s changed his position. He said he wouldn’t raise taxes. Now he’s saying he will,’” Romney explained.
Now let’s see, when did Romney declare he wouldn’t ever raise taxes? Not when he was running for governor. Back then, moderate Mitt said he wouldn’t make such a pledge because it might prevent him from taking a realistic approach to the state’s fiscal problems. So when did he ... Oh, that’s right. He signed Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge when he was scooting rightward to run for president the first time around.
Given his general lack of candor, it was no surprise that Romney blamed Obama for the entirety of the dysfunction in Washington, an assessment as unconvincing as the rest of his answers.
Now, as a former Romney fan, I still like to think that he could play a constructive role in our national discussion. But maybe not. After all, to win elder statesman status, an ex-candidate has to rise above the truth-trimming demands of partisan politics and speak honestly and openly about the issues of his time.
Scot Lehigh writes for the Boston Globe.