It’s a query that occurs with increasing frequency as Election Day draws closer — and a matter worth mulling now that Moderate Mitt is re-emerging from mothballs.
Deep down, what does Romney really believe? If you’ve watched him run as a progressive Republican, as he did in 1994 against Ted Kennedy, and then as a moderate Republican, as he did in his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, then as a self-proclaimed conservative in the GOP primaries, that’s a very real and perplexing question.
Back in 1994 I believed that Romney was sincere about keeping abortion legal. After all, he had cited the death of a relative from an illegal abortion as instrumental in determining his position, and said he had been pro-choice since his mother’s US Senate campaign in 1970.
No matter. As he gazed nationally a decade or so later, Romney decided he had to reverse his stand, and he found a way to do so, citing a supposedly epiphanic moment that came during the stem-cell debate.
So what are his core beliefs? Conversations with those who have been Romney advisers or members of his inner circle or part of his administration lead to this list.
First, that America is truly exceptional. That’s a regular Republican theme, but also one reinforced by his father’s up-by-his-bootstraps success story, and, beyond that, by Mormon theology. Romney also believes strongly in capitalism and economic freedom, which undergirds his conviction that government should be smaller and less intrusive.
He also feels very strongly that it is wrong for one generation to load debt onto the next.
“He thinks that is immoral,” says one former member of his inner circle.
“That is almost a moral thing with him,” agrees an erstwhile administration official.
That belief, in turn, buttresses Romney’s conviction that he should be president at this particular point in history. “He believes that he is uniquely qualified to wrestle that problem to the ground,” this person adds.
No one doubts that Romney’s real interests are economic and fiscal.
“He believes in fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets,” says a former adviser. “Beyond that, he doesn’t have many ideological beliefs.”
“Deep down, on social issues, I think he is more of a libertarian,” adds the one-time member of Romney’s inner circle.
So, given his concerns on the fiscal front, would Romney really insist on a no-new-revenues approach to deficit reduction? That was a virtual conservative litmus test on the primary-campaign trail, one Romney fell in line with.
Not only did he sign Grover Norquist’s No New Taxes pledge, he, like his GOP rivals, vowed to reject a budget deal even if it offered $10 in cuts for every 1 dollar in new revenue.
But Romney is hardly inveterately anti-tax, his associates say, which leads some to think that, left to his own problem-solving devices, he would be open to more revenue as part of a grand budgetary bargain that included guaranteed spending cuts.
“Mitt in his heart is not ‘severely conservative,’ ’’ says the former administration official. “Those of us who worked with him never thought we were working for a severely conservative governor.”
Yet the overall question is ultimately less about Romney’s personal inclination than about his political determination. Even if one assumes Romney really is a moderate, would he be gutsy enough to stand up to congressional and movement conservatives and Tea Party types intent on setting the GOP agenda in the years ahead? Does he believe in anything firmly enough that he would weather a conservative fire storm rather than back down?
Even old Romney hands express reservations there.
The former adviser confesses that he once thought Romney believed strongly in the individual health-insurance mandate at the center of Romneycare and in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, only to see him back away from both when they became anathema to the Republican right-wing. Can he imagine Romney standing on principle if doing so risked a right-wing revolt?
After pondering that for a moment, this person answers a reluctant “no.”
“It is a legitimate question,” concedes the former administration member. “I just do not know if he has the capacity to do that.”
Nor do I.
Or, to put that more emphatically: After covering Romney for almost 20 years, nor do I.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.