WASHINGTON — The politician on the stage talked about the “human tragedy” of middle-class people struggling to make ends meet. He lamented income inequality, saying “People want to see rising wages — and they deserve them. They’re working hard.”
Then, winding up a 15-minute speech to loud applause, he vowed, “We’re going to . . . finally end the scourge of poverty in this great land!”
The lines could have easily been delivered by President Obama or Senator Elizabeth Warren.
But they came from the mouth of Republican Mitt Romney, who is undergoing another reinvention as he considers whether to mount a third presidential campaign.
As he tests the waters, Romney has at times sounded like a Democrat, suggesting that fighting poverty would be a core tenet of his candidacy. He has advocated higher teacher pay, said more needs to be done to fight global climate change, and reinforced his previous call for a higher minimum wage.
“On both sides of the aisle, we just haven’t been able to take on and try and make progress on the major issues of our day,” he said Wednesday night during an address at an investment management conference in Salt Lake City.
To his supporters, it is a heartfelt way for Romney to address publicly some of the issues he has been passionate about privately, dating back to his years working as a Mormon pastor.
But to his critics, this is just the latest Etch A Sketch moment for a candidate who, perpetually in search of a pathway to the presidency, picks his positions strategically, rather than out of any firm conviction.
He ran as a moderate in Massachusetts — first unsuccessfully for the US Senate in 1994 and then successfully for governor in 2002 — before changing his positions on topics such as abortion in an apparent effort to appeal to national Republicans. By 2012, the man who a decade earlier said he was “someone who is moderate” whose “views are progressive,” was declaring himself “severely conservative.”
He’s now back on a softer note.
“A successful presidential campaign message relies on the credibility of the messenger, and on this topic Romney has zero credibility,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican consultant who formerly advised Newt Gingrich and led a firm that has worked with other conservative candidates, including Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, but is so far unaligned.
“Romney is now immune from the flip-flop charge because he’s changes so much you can’t tell which side of the flip or the flop he’s on,” said Tyler. “The problem with Romney is he doesn’t hold any core convictions, or at least any anyone could articulate.”
Romney’s spokesman declined to comment, and other aides declined to comment on the record.
In the two weeks since Romney told a group of donors that he was considering another run, Republicans have begun to question his focus on poverty, recalling that he was tagged as a wealthy businessman during his 2012 campaign after he was caught on a video disparaging 47 percent of Americans who depend on government assistance.
Democrats are eager to use some of the same lines of attack, with plenty of old footage to recycle.
“He’s hoping everyone completely forgets about his failed campaign and allows his campaign to start from scratch. And that’s just not going to happen,” said Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic consultant and former president of American Bridge, a super PAC that pilloried Romney during the 2012 campaign.
Republicans have increasingly been discussing ways that their party can credibly talk about empowering the middle class. But as Romney formulates a rationale for running, he has been ridiculed by conservative pundits as the wrong messenger.
“Until Romney’s expression of interest in a third run for the presidency, when has he ever shown an interest in the poor?” Jennifer Rubin, a conservative commentator at the Washington Post who was once one of Romney’s chief advocates, wrote this week. “When has he departed from the view that cutting marginal tax rates would create the tide that raises all boats?”
Republicans, she said, should nominate someone new who can forcefully articulate ways to empower middle-class families.
“Whomever it comes from it must be authentic and come from someone with a record of doing what the candidate says he believes in,” she wrote. “It can’t come from a candidate who discovered the poor a few weeks ago.”
In recent days, Romney has not provided specific proposals for fighting poverty, raising wages, or combating climate change, but the mere fact that he is talking about the subjects is getting attention.
“I’m one of those Republicans who thinks we are getting warmer and that we contribute to that,” Romney said Wednesday night during an investment management conference in Utah.
It’s a similar stance that he held early on during the 2012 campaign, but one that bucks many in his party and never became a core component of his candidacy.
Romney first revealed Jan. 9 that he was considering a run in a private meeting with wealthy donors in midtown Manhattan. He followed that with his first public comments relating to a potential run last Friday, at a Republican National Committee meeting in San Diego.
“Under President Obama the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse, and there are more people in poverty in America than ever before,” Romney told the crowd of party insiders and campaign contributors in San Diego.
Romney has previously written about poverty, in his 2010 book “No Apology,” released in the lead-up to his 2012 campaign.
“Far too many American families live below the poverty line, and many more live with worry and insecurity,” he wrote. “Racial minorities especially have not shared equally in the nation’s economic success, and there is a growing gap between the highest-earning households and the lowest.”
But during his 2012 campaign, he did not emphasize poverty. When he did mention it, it was to extol the virtues of the free-enterprise system — not government intervention — in pulling people up the economic ladder.
“Free enterprise has done more to lift people out of poverty, to help build a strong middle class, to help educate our kids, and to make our lives better than all the programs of government combined,” he said in a stump speech in April 2012.
Government intervention seems more on his mind now. During an event in Indian Wells, Calif., on Monday night, Romney turned his attention to boosting teacher pay.
“We have great teachers. I’d pay them more,” Romney said, according to the Desert Sun newspaper.
After his 2012 loss, Romney came out in favor of raising the minimum wage, breaking from many in his party and distinguishing himself from some leading contenders in the 2016 presidential field.
But even then, he cast it not in moral terms but as a tactical stance, required to attract support among Hispanic voters, a group he lost overwhelmingly in 2012.
“The key for our party is to be able to convince the people who are in the working population, particularly the Hispanic community, that our party will help them get better jobs and better wages,” he said last May on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
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Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.