The Conversion

A Matter of Convenience and Conviction

William Saletan takes your questions on Mitt Romney’s abortion evolution.

Has Mitt Romney been able to sell the same position on abortion in two different ways to two different audiences over the years?

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Slate national correspondent William Saletan was on our Facebook page to chat with readers about his series on the evolution of Mitt Romney’s abortion position. The following transcript of the discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Slate: Was Mitt Romney’s abortion evolution a flip-flop, a legitimate conversion, or something more complex? William Saletan exhaustively reported on nearly 50 years worth of Romney history to uncover a captivating portrait of an incredibly malleable candidate. Will is taking reader questions on the series right now.

Jordan Altobelli: “Conversion,” “malleable,” “evolving.”… Flip-flop is so much more succinct.

Will Saletan: I don’t like flip-flop because it shortcuts the complexity of the shift. For example, Romney has an authentic history as a pro-life abortion counselor. How many other pols can say that?

Diane Wilson: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds: Emerson.

Will Saletan: I’ve tried to understand that Emerson quote and never succeeded. Can you explain what’s the superior alternative to consistency?

Nathan Okerlund: I think Emerson would say that a non-little mind is capable of taking in new evidence, admitting error, and changing one’s views. I’d say that Mitt’s public pronouncements, on the evidence of your article, show that he has done step one, has actively avoided step two, and says he’s done step three but hasn’t really—but it’s all moot because his position never really changed.

Will Saletan: Thanks for the explanation re Emerson, Nathan. Let’s run Romney through the checklist. 1) new evidence: Well, embryo research wasn’t an issue when he first ran for the Senate, so I guess you could make that point for him. But then, why didn’t he say no embryos should be destroyed for research? Why only cloned embryos? 2) admitting error. Well, yes, but if he doesn’t explain the nature of the error, then it just sort of amounts to a plea for a clean slate. I’m inclined not to give that, without more justification.

Will Saletan: On admitting error, sometimes he says he was wrong, but then sometimes he pretends he never said what he said. He’s maddeningly resistant, probably because deep down, he knows he’s the same guy who took the other position. That’s just the nature of his underlying feelings: they’re conflicted.

Nathan Okerlund: Of course, Emerson seems to be referring to ideas and convictions, rather than how one presents one’s ideas and convictions, and it seems Mitt’s convictions (such as they are) on the subject have stayed the same—it’s the presentation that has changed.

Will Saletan: Yes, there’s a lot of salesman in Romney. E.g., you sell the car by emphasizing color to one customer, but the warranty to another. That’s why I find the Utah/Massachusetts pivot so interesting: it’s the same position sold to two opposite audiences by emphasizing its alternative aspects.

Scott N. Carr: Like his position on virtually EVERY issue, it’s a matter of convenience, not conviction.

Will Saletan: Do you think convenience and conviction are mutually exclusive? In Romney’s case, isn’t it both? He has convictions on either side that he can emphasize, e.g. one way in Utah and the other way in Massachusetts?


Jeremy Stahl: You seem to come to the conclusion that malleability and calculation are just a part of who Mitt Romney is at his core, which I feel like is something that you could say about all politicians, but that he was always kind of personally centrist in his views on abortion until he started tacking to the right for political reasons. I’m wondering how you think he’d govern on this issue? For instance, do you think he’d nominate a justice who would overturn Roe v. Wade?

Will Saletan: I think he’d outsource abortion policy to the Christian right. He’s made that pretty clear already. He wants the path of least resistance on these issues, since he doesn’t want to focus on them. And the path of least resistance is to hand them over to the people within his constituency who care about them most.

Jeremy Stahl: What about the SCOTUS, though, which is one place where he’d have to be the decider? Say Anthony Kennedy retires under a President Romney. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard him says there’s no litmus test, but I have to imagine if he nominates somebody too centrist he’d have a Harriet Miers style revolt on his hand (sorry to hit you with so many hypotheticals, but they’re just so much fun).

Will Saletan: That’s a trickier question. I don’t think Romney would outsource Supreme Court appointments the same way he’d outsource the Mexico City policy. More likely, he’d vet his list with pro-life groups, but he’d focus more on a basically conservative judicial philosophy (e.g. about the role of legislators vs. judges). And his nominees would almost certainly be more acceptable to Democrats than Santorum’s would. Not that I think there’s much chance of Santorum becoming president.

Jeremy Manier: Hi Will! Define “more acceptable to Democrats.” In the sense that Roberts was more acceptable than Alito? If Romney went left of Roberts I suspect he’d have huge problems with his base, especially in a first term.

Will Saletan: Two Jeremies! Awesome. I’m just talking about the difference between a judge for whom any pro-life policies would be a byproduct of judicial philosophy (via Romney) and a judge for whom pro-life policies would be, at least subconsciously, a motivation. For example, if you want to get rid of Roe, you just need a judge who doesn’t believe the constitution covers abortion. Whereas under Santorum, I could see a much more aggressive attempt to pick a judge who cares so much about abortion that he/she would let it influence a ruling above and beyond judicial philosophy.


Will Schmidt: I realize that both sides of the issue like clear-cut answers about abortion, but do we really want a candidate who sees abortion in black and white? Most people, it seems to me, like to hedge their position on abortion as to not seem like an extremist. Most pro-choice people I know like to emphasize that they think abortion should be legal mainly because back-alley abortions will become the norm if it is outlawed. They also state that they are uncomfortable with elective abortions that are done out of convenience. I also know many pro-life people who think abortion is OK in cases of rape, incest and where the life of the mother is in danger. Even though they consider themselves “pro-life,” others would call them “pro-choice.” Who is right?

I know most people would read this article and think that Romney is a flip-flopper. Obviously, he is emphasizing the points about abortion that cater to his audience. Every politician … nay, person, does this. I don’t think his beliefs have changed at all. He is not a hard-liner for the pro-life side, yet he is uncomfortable with abortion and its prevalence in America today.

I will admit that I am a biased, pro-life, Romney supporter, but those who disagree with me should take note: reading this article has made me reconsider my stance on abortion. Maybe I am more pro-choice than I thought.

Will Saletan: I think you’re basically right. Here’s my beef, as a conflicted pro-choicer: I think Romney clearly feels that a cultural signal needs to be sent that abortion mustn’t be casual or overused. And I don’t mind that. What I mind is the use of criminal law to do that. I just don’t agree with my pro-life friends that abortions should be banned to send a message. Criminal laws have real consequences, as anyone who lived through the era of Ann Keenan can tell you. And it does bother me that Romney seems to have forgotten that.


Jeremy Stahl: This is one of my favorite parts of the piece: “When Romney puts his mind to moral issues, he can be quite thoughtful. But he doesn’t like them. He avoids them as long as possible. Then he says as little as possible.” I’m wondering if you think that if he were to win the nomination, the thoughtful Romney would come out at some point in the general election? Or would he still fear a backlash from social conservatives too much to show any nuance at all? Or are both sides going to try to be playing down social issues, so it won’t really even be that big of an issue anyway?

Will Saletan: I think one reason we saw that guy in 2004/05 on cloning is that the issue was relatively new, so he felt free to study it. And as Jeremy Manier can tell you, embryo research and biotech in general are constantly evolving, so there would be more opportunities for Romney to think these issues through as they change, if he so chose. But I’m not confident that he’d give them his time.


Tim Stone: There’s always the possibility that he picked up a science book and read it …

Will Saletan: He definitely got a science briefing from Hurlbut. I do think Romney respects science and the concept of new discovery more than Santorum does (though not more than Gingrich). So from a science standpoint, Romney would be a better president.

Ross Wachsman: Very thoughtful, nuanced, well researched article. Much appreciated.

Will Saletan: Thanks, Ross. How does it make you feel about Romney? I’ve heard very different reactions from different people.

Marsha Louise Jamison: Thank you for writing this.

Will Saletan: You’re welcome, Marsha. It took forever. He’s a very complex guy.

Willie Wickel: ‎Will Saletan, you are blowing up my FB timeline. Good to see you.

Will Saletan: Hi, Willie. Good to see you, too. I’m told I gotta check out of this session now, but it’s great to hear from you again.