Mitt Romney, the candidate who has made a career out of shifting his positions to suit the political climate and maximize his electoral prospects, may have gone too far with his most recent (now retracted) policy pivot. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century political theorist, would be especially disappointed with Romney's “abuses of speech.” It is one thing to change one's mind after careful reflection, but it's quite another to consistently state that your position is not your position, and then backpedal.
After radically altering his views on health care policy, stem cell research, Medicare and — last week in the first presidential debate — tax cuts, Romney now seeks to occupy every side of the abortion debate as well. Here is what Romney told the Des Moines Register editorial board on Tuesday when asked if he intends “to pursue any legislation specifically regarding abortion”:
"There's no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda."
When Romney says something at odds with his official campaign platform while hamming it up on the campaign trail, it usually falls on campaign staffers to walk back the mistake. Rachel Maddow detailed a few recent examples on her show on Wednesday night, from the campaign’s disavowal of Mitt’s stated support for a health care law that would guarantee coverage for people with pre-existing conditions to its retraction of Mitt’s admission that Obama hasn’t raised taxes during his first term.
But the abortion issue — which somehow did not arise once in the first presidential debate on domestic policy — is the flip-flop with the most upside for the Obama campaign, especially considering the President’s advantage among women. When considered in the context of Romney’s evolution on the issue over the past 20 years, it paints a picture of a truly craven Republican nominee.
Romney campaigned as a pro-choice candidate in his race for the U.S. Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994. “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country,” he said during a debate. “I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years, that we should sustain and support it and the right of a woman to make that choice.” He reiterated his support for abortion rights in 2002.
How did Romney move from unequivocally supporting abortion rights ten years ago to pledging to support an amendment defining conception as the beginning of life in 2012? William Saletan has the full story. But whatever the justifications for the twists and turns in his position, the great 17th-century theorist of political power would be furious.
It’s normally not a bad thing to be criticized for not being Hobbesian enough. Leviathan, Hobbes's master work, makes a case for the antithesis of a liberal democratic political order. Where the American republic is said to be built on liberty, equality and the voice of the people, Hobbes’s polity is an authoritarian kingdom where the only voice that matters (after an initial moment of popular consent) is that of the sovereign. Your liberty ends where the sovereign says it does. It is seditious to suggest that the sovereign should be subject to the rule of law. Separation of powers is no power at all: all authority must be consolidated in the hands of one man or a single, univocal council of men. Dissent is decidedly unpatriotic and will not go unpunished.
I'm not suggesting that Romney, or any candidate, builds a platform around this vision. But in chapter 4 of Leviathan, Hobbes has some advice that Romney ought to bear in mind whether he ends up in the White House this January or tries again in 2016. Political leaders have a duty to be clear about their intentions, Hobbes counsels. It is crucial that they avoid “inconstancy of the signification of their words” and lay down publicly accessible, clear, consistent accounts of their beliefs. Hobbes argued that “settling the significations” was necessary to clarify a society's moral universe and to impose order on the chaos of meanings that reigned in the state of nature.
Presidents aren't quite meant to do that, but there are other reasons to listen to this admonition from Hobbes. Voters deserve to know what they are voting for. And presidents need a clear idea of their agenda when they assume office if they hope to make any kind of a mark. If Romney wins the election, he will find himself with a strangely contradictory mandate: end Obamacare but preserve its central provisions, push for a tax cut that costs $4.8 trillion but make sure it doesn’t cost $4.8 billion, ban abortion without supporting any legislation to restrict it.
But if Romney loses, it will be because in the final month of the campaign Obama is able to frame his opponent as an empty, shifting target whose positions are electoral conveniences rather than convictions. That shouldn’t be a difficult portrait for the President to paint.
Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie