The fact that there's intense interest in a letter Mitt Romney wrote to the Massachusetts Log Cabin Club 12 years ago in which he pledged to be a more ardent advocate for gay rights than U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy isn't a surprise. (See "Follow That Trail," page 15.) Romney is an all-but-declared candidate for president who's staked his candidacy on social conservatism. Any hint of hypocrisy on Romney's part with regard to LGBT issues is of great use for political reporters, GOP primary opponents and LGBT activists alike. What is surprising, though, is the depth of Romney's hypocrisy.
In 1994, when Romney was running for U.S. Senate against Ted Kennedy, he engaged in a lengthy interview with Bay Windows during which he discussed his views on employment nondiscrimination legislation, the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy - and civil marriage rights for same-sex couples (see "Mitt's secret gay history II"). The interview was published Aug. 25, 1994. His views on gay issues in 1994 are largely at odds with his stated views today.
Take civil marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples. Romney said that his view on the issue was similar to then-Gov. William Weld's. Weld opposed it. But Romney explained that he saw marriage as "a state issue ... the authorization of marriage on a same-sex basis falls under state jurisdiction." The statement, of course, is at odds with Romney's current support of a federal marriage ban, which he has testified in favor of before Congress. Romney's views on marriage in 1994 line up with potential GOP presidential primary opponent Sen. John McCain's views on marriage. McCain opposes an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would prohibit same-sex couples from marrying and believes the issue should be decided on a state-by-state basis. Romney has called McCain's position "disingenuous."
In the interview, Romney emphasized that he would be an advocate for gay civil rights. And he offered some surprisingly thoughtful reasons for his positions - surprising only because of his demagoguing on gay rights today. He tied his willingness to advocate for the rights of gay people, for instance, to the Mormon concept of "free agency": "When I speak of free agency, I don't just mean that each person can do what they want to do, I mean that our society should allow people to make their own choices and live by their own beliefs," said Romney. "People of integrity don't force their beliefs on others, they make sure that others can live by different beliefs they may have. That's the great thing about this country: it was founded to allow people to follow beliefs of their own conscience. I will work and have worked to fight discrimination and to assure each American equal opportunity."
While Romney said he supported President Bill Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy against openly gay service members, he sounded downright optimistic that the battle on that issue wasn't over. "I believe that there will be change over time as the military establishment and the rank and file become more comfortable with the realities of sexual orientation in the military," said Romney. "I will support progress being made in that area as time progresses and the military and society becomes more accepting."
Romney also stated his opposition to Republican stalwart Sen. Jesse Helms's attempt in 1994 to pass an amendment to an education bill that would have prevented the portrayal of homosexuality as "a positive lifestyle alternative," calling it "a dangerous precedent." "I would have opposed that. It also grossly misunderstands the gay community by insinuating that there's an attempt to proselytize a gay lifestyle on the part of the gay community. I think it's wrong-headed and unfortunate and hurts the party by being identified with the Republican Party." This from a man who now complains about the reading of gay-themed books like King and King in the classroom.
Last but not least, that letter to the Log Cabinites wasn't the first time Romney put forth the claim that he'd be better for the gays than Kennedy. In a last ditch effort to woo gay voters, Romney wound down the interview with this observation: "There's something to be said for having a Republican who supports civil rights in this broader context, including sexual orientation. When Ted Kennedy speaks on gay rights, he's seen as an extremist. When Mitt Romney speaks on gay rights he's seen as a centrist and a moderate. It's a little like if Eugene McCarthy was arguing in favor of recognizing China, people would have called him a nut. But when Richard Nixon does it, it becomes reasonable. When Ted says it, it's extreme; when I say it, it's mainstream.
"I think the gay community needs more support from the Republican Party," the candidate added, "and I would be a voice in the Republican Party to foster anti-discrimination efforts. ..."
So how will all of this impact Romney's presidential aspirations? Political pundit Andrew Sullivan recently told MSNBC's Chris Matthews that the GOP's evangelical Christian base won't abide Romney's pro-gay stances, particularly if he tries to defend them now. But if Romney backs off his support for LGBT rights, which he clearly appears to be doing, it opens him up for, at minimum, scrutiny and, at most, attack. After all, gay rights is not the only social issue on which Romney has made an abrupt change of heart. He used to be pro-choice.
"Clearly he's moving to the right very aggressively and he has to. He's got to move over to John McCain's right using what issues he can," says Charlie Cook, author of the Cook Political Report, the influential non-partisan newsletter. Romney needs to do this, adds Cook, primarily to inoculate himself against any concerns about his Mormon faith, which is viewed suspiciously by evangelicals, along with a broad swath of the American public. "That's what politicians do, whether you're a Republican or Democrat, a Romney or anybody else. That's what they do and that's what he's doing."
"The truth of the matter is that politicians may take different positions on issues based on political realities," agrees Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University. "Does that make them bad or cynical or corrupt or whatever? The answer is no," says Schmidt, who notes that Democrat Sen. Hillary Clinton has moved to the center on a number of issues as she warms up for a White House bid. Likewise, Schmidt notes McCain's about-face on his past opposition to federal ethanol subsidies, which is perceived to be part of his effort to woo voters in the crucial primary state of Iowa, where production of the corn-based fuel is revitalizing the farm economy. "That's the nature of electoral politics, is that you have to fine tune and finesse your positions and that's the case with Mitt Romney."
But Schmidt concedes that once the Republican contenders roll up their sleeves and start throwing punches, position changes become an obstacle. "Especially on social issues," he says. Indeed, it's easier to imagine explaining a shift on an economic/energy issue like ethanol than it is to articulate why you've gone from supporting a program to reduce to teen suicide to opposing such a program, or why you now believe that it's okay for people to be fired from their jobs because they're gay. But if Romney is going to succeed in winning the presidency with the support of the GOP's right wing, it's hard to imagine him signing the employment non-discrimination act into law (ENDA), even though he's pledged support for it in the past.
Indeed, the challenge for Romney will be to come up with a believable narrative to justify his backtracking on LGBT issues. Political candidates who change their minds on issues "have to have some kind of compelling story for why their ideas have changed over time," says Dean Spiliotes, the director of research at St. Anselm College's New Hampshire Institute of Politics, otherwise they're accused of being opportunists or flip-floppers.
"It's a tricky thing to deal with as a politician, particularly for Romney because this wasn't all that long ago," says Spiliotes. "We're talking about stuff that he said basically 10 years ago [and] back in 2002. I think it's pretty clear that he feels at some level he sees an opportunity. You can decide whether you want to question whether he truly is a conservative who adapted his positions to be elected in Massachusetts and now is reverting to his earlier ideological position, or whether he's evolving towards being more socially conservative because he sees that as being what he needs to do to outflank some of the other Republican candidates.
"There are all sort of interesting explanations for why candidates do this kind of stuff," Spiliotes observes, "but it really opens him up to a lot of scrutiny."
Romney weathered some criticism last year for his past expressions of support for gay rights from right-wing activist Gary Glenn of the American Family Association of Michigan after Bay Windows published an article detailing the governor's record of pro-gay stances after Romney began making appearances in front of conservative audiences and railing against civil marriage rights for same-sex couples. (See "Mitt Romney's Secret Gay History," March 3, 2005.) Glenn mailed a copy of the article and a letter blasting Romney for being too liberal on gay rights and abortion to GOP state senators in advance of Romney's appearance at a fundraiser for the Michigan Republican Party.
Other than that, however, his previous record on LGBT issues has largely gone unexamined by mainstream media outlets, even as he crisscrosses the country wooing the GOP's right-wing base and portraying himself, as he recently did during an interview with the D.C. newspaper The Examiner as "a conservative Republican," who differs on a number of issues - including same-sex marriage - with his more moderate potential rivals, Ariz. Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Romney has been content to flog his opposition to marriage equality from the steps of the State House to CNN's The Situation Room, while saying little else about his positions on other LGBT issues.
Appearing on The Situation Room in October, for instance, Romney repeatedly dodged host Wolf Blitzer's inquiries into whether he supported the right of same-sex couples to adopt children; at one point he responded to Blitzer's questioning with the noncommittal, "Well, that's a state-by-state issue." When Blitzer persisted, Romney launched into an explanation of the need for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
But as Romney's tenure on Beacon Hill draws to a close his record on LGBT issues will get a much closer vetting, especially given the reputation he's built among social conservatives on the issue of gay marriage. It seems that some, particularly the governor's hard-right supporters, might be surprised at what's found.