Mitt Romney, a gangly 17-year-old, looked neat and businesslike in his dark suit, white shirt, and narrow tie, with a badge on his lapel, as he took a seat at the 1964 Republican convention. He watched his father, George, representing the party’s moderates, exhort the platform committee to adopt an amendment rejecting “extremists.” The effort failed, Barry Goldwater became the nominee and, as Mitt later recalled it, his father “walked out of the Republican convention.”
This week, 48 years later, Romney is walking into his own nominating convention as the Republican Party gathers in Tampa. But the story line has turned upside down. Mitt Romney isn’t the moderate voice seeking to rein in the extreme forces in the GOP; he has become, as he called himself earlier this year, a “severely conservative” man looking to win the complete trust of the dominant right of his party, the Goldwater wing of his day. It is as if winning requires purging a key element of his father’s political legacy. But an examination of the forces behind Romney’s striking shifts on key issues makes it clear it is much more than that.
Romney’s appearances at these two conventions are bookends of a sort, set on either side of a winding ideological path, framing questions that go to the heart of the Romney canon. Call it a reasoned and heartfelt evolution, as the candidate does, or flip-flopping and shape-shifting, as his opponents prefer to put it. The question is not whether Romney has changed his outlook over the years — he undeniably has — but why. It is an evolution that combines many elements of the Romney saga: the bonds and breaks between father and son; the question about whether he has core convictions; and his politically bloody fight with the party that finally is poised to anoint him as its leader.
For much of Romney’s political career, the effort to understand him has been seen as epilogue of his father’s quest, a redemption story in which the son strives to succeed where his father failed. Everything, it often seems, has built to this moment in Tampa, and the nomination and acclamation his father never gained.
“To see your father basically assaulted” at the 1964 convention, “had to strike a powerful chord in Romney. That had to be absorbed into his heart and soul,” said Robert Goldberg, a biographer of Barry Goldwater who also has closely followed Romney’s career. “The question is: Why doesn’t that stick? How he escaped — that is another story.”
So what happened? How and why did the moderate Romney seek to redefine himself? And what does that say about the nominee in waiting, and the legacy of the family that shaped him?
In the beginning, the Romneys were almost apolitical, or at least nonideological. The elder Romney got his first big break by being hired in Washington as an aide to a Massachusetts Democrat, Senator David Walsh, and favored problem-solving over politics. Before seeking public office himself, he said, “I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat.”
Only the necessity of declaring for one party or another when seeking the Michigan governorship in 1962 — discussed at a family meeting in which Mitt participated — led George to announce that he was joining the Republican Party.
Early on, Mitt watched at his father’s side as the Romney philosophy took root.
On the day that George Romney declared his candidacy for governor, Mitt was there, absorbing his father’s views. It was a scene witnessed by The Boston Globe’s editor at the time, Laurence L. Winship, who traveled to Detroit and wrote a front-page story about the announcement. It marked the first appearance of Mitt Romney in the Globe.
“Fourteen-year-old Mitt . . . watched with sharp eyes as Mr. Romney handled a barrage of questions,” Winship reported. The younger Romney heard his father’s defining remark: “Policies designed for the benefit of the dominating group bring harm and hardship for those who live outside the border of privileged circles.” The Romneys, of course, were among the most privileged in America, living in one of the nation’s wealthiest communities, Bloomfield Hills. George Romney was a rich man speaking up for those who were not; a white man speaking up for minorities. He was, in short, a moderate out of sync with his party’s increasingly rightward tilt.
Indeed, the state Republican Party that had embraced Romney in his run for governor in Michigan looked much different from the national GOP that would gather two years later in San Francisco. Republican moderates had joined with more liberal Democrats to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prompting GOP conservatives to rebel. Goldwater joined a number of southern Democrats in voting against the legislation, part of an emerging Southern Strategy that further severed the Party of Lincoln from black people. Republican power was shifting to the South and West.
So it was that when George took his son to the San Francisco convention, Mitt became an eyewitness to the unfolding war over the direction of the Republican Party, with Goldwater and most of the delegates on the conservative side and Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, and a smaller number of delegates fighting for moderation. With Mitt watching earnestly from his seat — in a moment captured by an Associated Press photographer — his father implored the delegates to adopt a plank supporting civil rights for black people. The Goldwater delegates refused. George also failed in a bid to pass a plank calling on the party to reject “extremists.” It was mostly an effort to get the party to push out the far-right John Birch Society, which Romney and other moderates feared had increasing influence on the party. (A similar effort by Rockefeller on the convention floor famously led to his being booed by delegates.) Goldwater himself later declared in his acceptance speech: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
George Romney was aghast at the party’s direction, predicting that nominating Goldwater would lead to “the suicidal destruction of the Republican Party.” The convention ignored Romney. As Mitt watched from his seat in the Cow Palace, his father received 41 votes to be the party’s nominee. Goldwater won with 883. Weeks later, a television commercial from President Johnson’s campaign ran an advertisement that showed a Romney placard tossed into a convention trash pile as a narrator quoted Romney’s harsh words about Goldwater.
After Goldwater lost the general election in a landslide to Lyndon B. Johnson, he wrote an angry letter demanding that Romney explain why he never endorsed him. George responded in a 12-page letter that included a warning that perhaps is even more relevant today than when it was written:
“Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation, lead to governmental crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress,” George wrote.
A defensive strategy
Mitt was deeply influenced by his father’s words and actions, at least in the early part of his career. He had watched his father win election in a Democratic state, Michigan, by vowing to work in a bipartisan fashion, and he would try to follow that model when running in Massachusetts. But while George Romney was an unequivocal success at the state level, winning the governorship three times, he was a failure at the national level, failing to win the Republican nomination in 1968. The lesson imparted to Mitt may have been clear: His father had tried to run for president as he had run for governor — as a blunt, outspoken moderate who counted on ticket-splitting voters for victory. It didn’t work.
And his father’s gravest setback, he knew, was also a byproduct of that blunt, frank style.
George was already disliked by many of the party’s conservatives when he famously changed his mind about his support for the Vietnam War by declaring he had been given “the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get.” It was a gaffe that undid him forever, politically. Mitt, in France at the time as a Mormon missionary, could only look on from a distance in dismay. But he defended his father’s change of heart then, and later even echoed his father’s phrasing when he spoke of the war: “I think we were brainwashed. If it wasn’t a blunder to move into Vietnam, I don’t know what is.”
But he also learned from his father’s debacle. Years later, Mitt Romney said that “a slip of the tongue or a misstatement can lead to a significant reversal,” and his sister Jane once told the Globe their father’s comment made Mitt “more cautious, more scripted.”
The result is a candidate today who is, in many ways, the opposite of his blunt-spoken father. His world outlook and personal style were honed during his years as a corporate consultant and leveraged buyout specialist, workheavy on analysis and closed-door discussion. His work at Bain Capital reinforced his instinct to embrace the “creative destruction” model of the business world -- that businesses come and go by the nature of things, and must be left to do so, with minimal government regulation.
The political influence of George on Mitt continued to be crucial. In 1992, George created a nonpartisan group called “Americans for America” and placed ads urging voters to cast ballots based on “citizenship, not partisanship or economic interest.” One month after George unveiled that effort, Mitt, who had given money to Democrats over the years, voted in the Democratic presidential primary for former Senator Paul Tsongas, who focused on the importance of making deficit reduction a nonpartisan patriotic goal. Explaining his vote to The Washington Post, Mitt boasted that he had pulled a Democratic lever, saying, “I’m not a partisan politician. My hope is that after this election, it will be the moderates of both parties who will control the Senate, not the Jesse Helmses.”
By the time Mitt began to ponder seeking the Senate seat held by Edward Kennedy, he was still registered as an independent. Finally, in late 1993, Romney changed his registration to Republican. But which type of Republican would he be? One in the moderate mold of his father, or in line with his adopted party’s increasingly powerful conservative wing? Romney chose the former, hoping to follow his father’s success at the state level by running as a liberal-to-moderate politician. Key to that calculus, of course, was that he was running against the nation’s most powerful liberal in perhaps the nation’s most liberal state.
The timing of Romney’s decision was crucial. When Romney announced his candidacy in February 1994, a conservative Republican revolution was underway in Washington. Newt Gingrich plotted an assault against the party’s moderate leadership, proposing a “Contract with America.” Gingrich’s strategy relied on casting Democrats as “pathetic” villains. Romney flatly opposed the Gingrich approach.
“It is not a good idea to go into a contract like what was organized by the Republican Party in Washington, laying out a whole series of things which the party said, ‘These are the things we’re going to do,’ ’’ Romney said at the time. “I think that’s a mistake.’’ Romney portrayed himself as a bipartisan pragmatist in his father’s mold, echoing his father’s famous letter to Goldwater. “If you want to get something done in Washington, you don’t end up picking teams with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other,’’ he said. “I don’t like winners and losers in Washington. I’d rather say let’s get together and work together.’’
The strategy failed. Romney staked out moderate-to-liberal positions on issues like abortion and gay rights but lost to Kennedy and faced a deepening divide with the national party, which continued to move farther to the right. Eight years later, running for the governorship, Romney was still trying to capitalize on the distance between him and the national GOP, saying: “I think people recognize that I’m not a partisan Republican, that I’m someone who is moderate and my views are progressive.” This time, the strategy worked, and he was elected governor.
As governor, Romney, at least at the outset, stuck by this approach. He needed to find ways to work with the Democrat-controlled legislature. His record was liberal on social issues and largely pragmatic on many others. Asked if he would stand by his views in favor of abortion rights, he said, “I make an unequivocal answer: Yes.” He favored a system of trading credits for pollution emissions – known as cap-and-trade — to control global warming, writing that “I concur that climate change is beginning to [affect] . . . our natural resources and that now is the time to take action toward climate protection.” He backed an individual mandate to provide nearly universal health care. All of those positions were anathema to many conservatives, and he would in time change or modify his views on them.
From his standpoint, inside “Romney World” — as his political command center was known — there is an explanation for each recalibration of his views. Romney said he had an epiphany that led him to oppose abortion rights, which he said came in 2004 while studying and then opposing human embryo cloning. He said that a plan for capping and trading pollution credits had become too expensive. And he said that his support of an individual mandate at the state level is different than favoring one overseen by the federal government. Still, these and other shifts caused his Republican presidential primary opponents to label him as a man without a core.
It is a problem not just within the Republican Party, but also among Democrats and independents who may be hoping that Romney is more moderate than he admits — more like his father than he admits — but can’t be sure because of the way his views have shifted.
Presidential ambitions, as well as a keener focus on the kind of national politician he wanted to be, were key factors in the policy shifts, according to a Romney adviser who participated in numerous discussions about the policies.
“The change in the philosophy, ideology, was driven by the fact that he was exploring national office and he came to the realization that to be successful seeking the nomination, you had to become conservative,” said the adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not an authorized spokesman. “As he got deeper into the process it became readily apparent to him that something had to happen.”
The adviser couldn’t say if the changes in positions were heartfelt “because I don’t know if the original positions were heartfelt.” The bottom line, he said, was that Romney viewed social matters such as abortion as “nuisance issues” but that he remained constant and firmly rooted in his economic beliefs. “He was driven to get into politics on economic and fiscal issues,” the adviser said. The danger of flip-flopping was central to the discussion of each change. “Certainly there were considerations about changing positions; that is the oldest attack in the book,” the adviser said. But the consensus was that there was “no way” to win the Republican nomination unless changes were made.
Sensing a disconnect
Of all those who have studied the question of why Romney has changed his views, the most intriguing pair of investigators may be two of George Romney’s former top aides. Walter De Vries accompanied George to the 1964 convention and served as his political strategist, and Jonathan Moore went to Vietnam with George and served as his foreign policy adviser. The pair have talked for months with each other to try to understand what they consider to be Mitt’s position changes and distancing from his father’s views.
De Vries, asked how he thinks George would view Mitt’s positions today, responded: “He’d be horrified. And Mitt would hear from George about it. I can’t understand or comprehend it . . . I think a lot of people believe that secretly he is a moderate. I don’t believe that. The right, and particularly the radical right, is going to hold him to what he said.”
Moore is not quite as harsh, saying that George “would be very much taken with [Mitt’s] sense of loyalty, drive and competitiveness, very much taken with the prospect of his son winning the presidency. At the same time I think there would be regret. George Romney as a principle believed in belief. He believed in commitment.”
As a former director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, Moore has studied the lives of countless politicians and dissected Romney’s evolving convictions in his conversations with De Vries. His conclusion: “Maybe he didn’t change. Maybe the key thing about Mitt is he is, as one of his Harvard Business School classmates has said, a ‘driven pragmatist,’ and he was being pragmatic before and now, and it doesn’t represent a strong philosophical shift because it wasn’t there to begin with.”
Others say Romney is simply a much different type of politician than his father or many other presidential candidates.
Where his father seemed to revel in the public argument and explanation of his views, Mitt often disdains it. One of the most telling remarks by Romney during this campaign year came when NBC-TV’s Matt Lauer challenged the candidate to explain his views on income disparities. Romney sounded defensive, interpreting the question as another attack on his wealth and privileged upbringing, and responded that the assaults amount to financial jealousy.
“Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as envy, though?” Lauer asked.
“You know I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms,” Romney responded. It was classic, cautious Romney. His boisterous, force-of-nature father might have considered the concept of a quiet room to be an oxymoron, but it is precisely how Mitt operated at Bain Capital and how he often sought to operate as governor.
Echoes from the past
As Romney prepares to accept the nomination this week, he is bound to look back to the lessons learned from his father in family, faith, and politics. Indeed, his acceptance speech would surprise if he did not speak of them. And as it turns out, the elder Romney did leave a lesson plan of sorts for this occasion, long before the son thought about running for the presidency.
It was April 1992, three years before George died, when he sat down for a little-noticed oral history interview in which he reeled off his thoughts about how to run for the presidency — thoughts that seem especially relevant to his son today.
“I never considered myself a moderate,” George said in a surprising comment reminiscent of Mitt’s own ability to reimagine his political outlook. George said he was conservative on economic issues and lamented the way candidates fail to provide detailed solutions.
“The campaigns deal with superficial things basically,” George said. “I see no prospect under the current political processes of our getting at such problems as the deficit and others before we have to reach almost a disaster.” The only way for that to change, he said, is for candidates to lay out tough measures that gain support before Election Day. Otherwise, George Romney warned, “they get elected and they can’t do anything about it.”
Correction: Because of a reporting error, a previous version of this story misidentified the status of the late Paul Tsongas in 1992. He was then a former senator; his Senate term had expired in January 1985.