Mitt Romney: Too Good to Be True?
By Jonathan Darman and Evan Thomas
Feb. 26, 2007 issue - There is something a little too good to be true about Mitt Romney. The former governor of Massachusetts and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination is so buff and handsome in late middle age that when a brochure from a recent campaign showed him standing, bare-chested, on a swimming float, he was accused of sexually pandering to women voters. Romney, who is still married to his high-school sweetheart, doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and doesn't swear. His wife has said that, in private, he never even raises his voice.
As a candidate, he can appear slightly overproduced, a little too smooth for the hurly-burly of the hustings. Lately, Romney has been courting the evangelical vote, key to winning Republican primaries. He knows that some evangelicals regard his religion, Mormonism, as heresy (according to the National Journal, more than a quarter of self-identified evangelicals tell pollsters that they won't vote for a Mormon). So last week, at a lackluster rally in the Bible belt of South Carolina where maybe 300 people half-filled an auditorium, Romney was trying, a bit unctuously, to show his down-home piety. As the crowd trickled out, Romney, his voice still at full decibel from his stump speech, grabbed the hand of state Rep. Bob Leach, a Baptist. "This man," proclaimed Romney, "his prayers bring down the power of the Lord!"
Romney's campaign aides like to stress that he is a "turnaround" artist. They are referring to Romney's great success at salvaging failing companies as a venture capitalist in the 1980s and '90s and his near-miraculous rescue of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City from scandal and debt. The label carries the promise that Romney could reverse the fortunes of the GOP and the nation after the Bush years. But Romney's turnaround on the burning social issues of gay rights, stem-cell research and abortion has raised questions about the candidate's sincerity—a dangerous doubt at a time when voters seem to crave authenticity. In Massachusetts, as an unsuccessful Senate candidate in 1994 and in his winning race to become governor in 2002, Romney cast himself as liberal-to-moderate on social issues. But as Romney aims for the conservative Republican votes he will need to secure the presidential nomination, he has emerged as staunchly pro-life and anti-gay marriage. Was he, his critics ask, pretending then? Or is he pretending now?
Romney says he's always told the truth. On gay rights, he says, his basic views have not changed; rather, the political and cultural landscape has shifted. He still opposes discrimination against gays, but he does not favor recognizing gay marriage. "I never in a million years thought that we would have people of the same gender being told that they have a constitutional right to marry," Romney says. On the right to life, he did experience a turning point, he says, when he had to consider directly the morality of destroying human embryos in stem-cell research. In the wake of the failed presidential campaign of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Romney is well aware of the risks that a reputation for flip-flopping can pose to a national candidate. Questioned by NEWSWEEK about his apparent shifts on social issues, Romney grew uncharacteristically testy and said he'd rather be talking about "jihad, Iran and China." Questions about Romney's evolving views on abortion and gay rights could be a bigger issue with evangelicals than Romney's Mormonism, says Mark DeMoss, a Christian media strategist who's done evangelical outreach for the Romney campaign. A reconstruction of how Romney changed his views does not seriously challenge Romney's account of the evolution of his thinking, but it does suggest that political timing, as much as moral virtue, may have been on his mind.
Romney is not the sort of person who reveals inner doubt. Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, who has worked closely with Romney in business and politics, talks about Romney's "calmness" and "serenity." Over more than a decade, says Weld, "I've seen him laugh nervously a couple of times, maybe." Romney can be stiff. "He's a terrible joke teller," says Weld. "He thinks he's funny but he's not." And yet Weld, a moderate Republican who disagrees with Romney on abortion and gay rights, backs him for president: "I take him at his word. He is a straight shooter."
Romney is hardly the first Republican presidential candidate to be accused of expediency on social issues. Both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush moved to the right on abortion. A successful politician knows when to make compromises without appearing to abandon his or her dignity or moral compass. Romney's lifetime shows a history of getting along and going along—but also a capacity for boldness and an almost ruthless willingness to force change.
Romney grew up in the privileged, WASPy bastion of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where he attended an elite prep school, Cranbrook; he matriculated to Stanford. His father, Gov. George Romney, played speed golf in the morning (shades of George H.W. Bush) and otherwise projected a comfortable, country-club Republicanism. But the father could be unusually blunt: he was driven from the 1968 presidential campaign when he admitted that he had been essentially "brainwashed" by the military on Vietnam. Young Romney always said that he never felt pressure to become a politician; on the other hand, when he was 14, his father would drive him to crowded parking lots and then sit in the car and watch his son gather signatures supporting his dad. After his freshman year at Stanford, Mitt left sunny California to do his Mormon mission in a grimy, industrial suburb of Paris, where he converted very few secularized Roman Catholics. He then transferred to Brigham Young University to marry his high-school love, who was attending the school, and whom Romney had been zealously pursuing since they were teenagers.
At Harvard Business School, not a few of Romney's peers tagged him—and not another classmate, George W. Bush—as a true politician. Romney went off to make a fortune as a businessman, but he showed the kind of drive and enormous self-confidence that would suit him well as an aspirant for higher office. When one of his partners at Bain Capital in Boston went to Romney with frightening news—that the partner's teenage daughter had vanished after a rock concert in New York—Romney swung into action. He closed down the company for a few days and put his partners and staffers on a chartered plane to New York, where they organized a massive search. The missing girl was soon found.
Romney has never been dogmatic. In the business world, his method was to remain open-minded, study the facts—and then do whatever it took. "He's not unwilling to have his mind changed," says Meg Whitman, the CEO of eBay and a Romney friend who worked with him at Bain in the '80s. "He's very comfortable with blurry, gray areas." When he took over the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, he immediately cut out the lavish meals and travel boondoggles. "We're going to have pizza and it's a dollar a slice," he announced. He charged executives 25 cents for a soda and had meals served on paper plates. Romney himself worked without a salary. The message got through: the organization went from deep in the red into the black by the close of the Games.
Romney was probably not thinking all that hard about controversial social issues when he ran against Ted Kennedy for the Senate in 1994. His attitude seemed to be, "You want me to talk about abortion? How about mergers and acquisitions?" says Democratic operative Tad Devine, who worked on the Kennedy campaign. (At the time Romney said he'd taken the abortion issue seriously since his 20s, when a relative had died in an illegal abortion.) Romney was influenced by Rich Tafel, then the executive director of the pro-gay Log Cabin Republicans. At a three-hour meeting early in the '94 campaign, Tafel tells NEWSWEEK, he suggested that Romney be even more supportive of gay rights than Kennedy. Romney did so, writing letters and talking publicly about his support for selected gay issues. "No one supported gay marriage then," says Tafel.
Romney can place a date on the moment he took a stand against gay marriage. On Nov. 18, 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld gay marriage in the commonwealth. Romney's chief counsel, Daniel Winslow, recalls printing out the decision and carrying it to the governor's corner office. "It was as though he'd been punched in the solar plexus," Winslow tells NEWSWEEK. "I think he was stunned—and it was genuine, too, because it was in private." Romney was reacting against liberal judicial activism as well as taking a position against gay marriage, say his advisers, who do not wish to be identified discussing the candidate's thinking. The gay community is skeptical, as gay-activist blogger John Aravosis puts it, that Romney could go from claiming "he's better than Teddy Kennedy on gay rights" to being "right of Jerry Falwell." "You don't get to be both of those unless something wild happened in your life," says Aravosis. "But Romney doesn't have anything to point to. If the Virgin Mary came down and spoke to him, maybe."
Romney had a "Road to Damascus moment" on stem-cell research, says his son Taggart, 36. As Romney himself has described the incident in interviews, in November 2004 he met with a scientist from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. The scientist told him, "Look, you don't have to think about this stem-cell research as a moral issue, because we kill the embryos after 14 days." (The scientist, Dr. Douglas Melton, has disputed Romney's account; a Harvard spokesman says "the words 'kill' and 'killing' are not in Dr. Melton's professional vocabulary.") Taggart tells NEWSWEEK his father "had a genuine change of heart" that pushed him from tolerating pro-choice laws to wanting to change them. Though Romney had long been "personally pro-life," says Taggart, Romney had always told his son, "Listen, I don't want to impose my values and beliefs on other people." But after the Harvard stem-cell meeting, Romney became a true believer on trying to protect all human life from the moment of conception. "He felt so strongly that Roe v. Wade was a having a negative impact on the country, and cheapening life, he said, 'You know what, this is something that has to change'," Taggart says. Romney promptly came out against stem-cell research and vetoed a July 2005 bill making available Plan B, or "morning after" contraception.
Romney's timing was, at the very least, fortuitous for his political ambitions. In November 2004, the Republicans lost three seats in the Massachusetts Legislature, making even steeper Romney's uphill climb against the Democratic-dominated state house. Some foes, as well as a few friends, speculated that Romney was beginning to eye a grander stage. By early 2006, he was openly talking about running for president—and beginning to emphasize his rightward tilt on the social issues.
Romney may ultimately win over doubters on the right. "There is a subtle prejudice in that flip-flop charge," says Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. "People who are liberal can't understand why someone might move from a more-liberal position to a more-conservative position. Conservatives don't see it that way. They see it as someone who has seen the light." Christian media strategist DeMoss notes that evangelism is all about conversion, so, he says, "we accept an evangelical's conversion if he told us it happened this morning."
Romney's reputation as a family man with a wife of 37 years and five proud sons will also help with conservatives. Among top-tier candidates, Romney is more appealing to the Christian right than John McCain or Rudy Giuliani. Romney is beginning to get some important backers, too: he has the political machine of former Florida governor Jeb Bush behind him, an immensely important asset if, as predicted, Florida moves up its primary. (Bush's parents, George H.W. and Barbara, are said to be fond of Romney.) Romney may not be a funny man (though he loves "The Three Stooges"), but he can be a deft debater. When his opponent in the 2002 governor's race, Shannon O'Brien, accused him of pandering to pro-choice voters, she quoted Ted Kennedy's crack that Romney's not "pro-choice, he's multiple choice." He hit back by calling her "unbecoming," i.e., unladylike. "He did a masterful job of turning me into the overly aggressive female who couldn't get off that point," says O'Brien. But most important will be Romney's capacity for working through difficult challenges. Bill Weld recalls that as a businessman, Romney would come into a failing company "and turn everyone upside down and shake their pockets until all the facts came out." Romney, who dislikes running even a minute late, will bring the same relentlessness to his campaign operation. He will not hesitate to change personnel—or policy positions—in his search for a winning formula.
With Daniel McGinn and Samantha Henig in Boston and Holly Bailey, Eve Conant and Eleanor Clift in Washington