Have you heard the news? Mitt Romney met with editors of the Des Moines Register yesterday and dropped a bombshell. “Romney promises no abortion legislation,” says the Associated Press. “Romney: No abortion legislation,” says Politico. “Romney says no plans to restrict abortion,” says Agence France-Presse.
Nope. That isn’t what Romney said. This is a man with a long history of using technicalities to disguise his abortion views. You have to read his exact words, with attention to the loopholes. So let’s back up and listen to the full audio of Romney’s remarks.
The exchange takes place about 14 minutes into the meeting. A Register staffer asks: “Do you intend to pursue any legislation specifically regarding abortion?” Romney answers: “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.”
I count at least three loopholes in that sentence: legislation, familiar, and agenda.
Legislation was a gift from the questioner. By using that word, she allowed Romney to avoid mentioning the most important thing he would do to roll back abortion rights: appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Nor did Romney have to acknowledge any other non-legislative changes he would make, though he did cite one: an executive order against federal funding of international family planning organizations that support abortion rights.
Midway through his sentence, Romney added a second caveat: that I’m familiar with. The National Right to Life Committee, whose PAC has endorsed Romney, currently lists 23 “Key Bills in Congress” that it supports. Nine of the 14 House bills on the list have more than 100 sponsors each. Three have more than 218 sponsors—a voting majority. Most of these bills deal with late-term abortion, public funding, parental notification, and the right of health care institutions to withhold abortions or abortion information—issues on which Romney has made clear he’ll stand with pro-lifers. If these bills get to his desk, he’ll sign them. But for now, he can claim not to be “familiar” with them.
My agenda is a classic Romney dodge. He has used it on this issue before. On May 27, 2005, when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he brushed aside press queries about his abortion position, claiming that “my personal philosophical views about this issue” would only “distract from what I think is a more critical agenda” on jobs and education. A week later, when reporters asked about his views on abortion and Roe, he refused to answer them, saying, “I don’t want to get into a philosophical discussion of a federal law and a case that’s been in the books for 30 years and that is distracting from my agenda.”
What’s instructive about that pair of 2005 statements, in retrospect, is that they came less than two months before Romney declared himself pro-life, announced his opposition to Roe, and vetoed legislation to provide morning-after pills. When Romney says something isn’t “part of my agenda,” he doesn’t mean he won’t do it. He just means he doesn’t want to discuss it with the press or the public. To Romney, my agenda means “the stuff I’m happy to talk about.”
Romney’s whole track record on abortion is a history of feints and hedges. In 1993, he told leaders of the Mormon Church that he had to run as a pro-choicer for the U.S. Senate because, according to his campaign poll, this was the only way to get elected in Massachusetts. Then, six years later, when he was thinking about running for office in Utah, he reframed his position as pro-life. Then, when the governorship of Massachusetts opened up in 2002, he repositioned himself as a pro-choicer. Then, as he prepared to seek the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, he recast himself as a pro-lifer. At every turn, he has taken the angle that looked safest politically. And each time, he has given himself an escape clause.
If you want to understand what will happen to the no-legislation assurance Romney gave to the Register yesterday, look at what happened to the assurances he gave to voters in Massachusetts a decade ago. In 2002, as a candidate for governor, he repeatedly promised to “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose.” After he was elected, he reinterpreted that statement as a pledge not to “change our abortion laws either to restrict abortion or to facilitate it.” This allowed him to veto pro-choice legislation. Then, as he moved on from Massachusetts and began to court pro-lifers as a presidential candidate, he reinterpreted his no-change policy this way: “Every time I faced a decision as governor that related to life, I came down on the side of life.”
That’s why you need to spot the weasel words up front. In the end, with Romney, they’re all that matters.
William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: