Timothy Noah

Mitt's Choice

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A pillar of Mitt Romney’s claim not to be a shape-shifter on the abortion question is his insistence that he never called himself pro-choice. “I never called myself pro-choice,” he told Fox News in 2008. “I never allowed myself to use the word 'pro-choice' because I didn't feel I was pro-choice. I would protect the law, I said, as it was, but I wasn't pro-choice.” In a 2007 presidential debate Romney challenged his opponents to prove him a liar: “You can go back to YouTube and look at what I said in 1994. I never said I was pro-choice….”

Now Slate’s William Saletan has gone through the archives and, in what will likely stand as the definitive survey of Romney’s personal and political history with respect to abortion’s legality, discovers that Romney was bluffing: 

In his 1994 campaign, Romney used the words choice and choose in precisely this way. In May 1994, when the Boston Herald asked him about abortion, he talked instead about “choice legislation.” Two days later, in a debate, he said, “I support a woman's right to choose.” In September, Romney’s spokesman told reporters, “Mitt has always been consistent in his pro-choice position.” In October, when the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League called Romney a fake pro-choicer, the candidate shot back: “I don't think it's NARAL's position to say who's pro-choice and who's not pro-choice.” 

Whether Romney ever said “I’m pro-choice” is beside the point. What’s obvious is that he used the language of choice and choose to signal his commitment to abortion rights. 

In 2001 Romney was preparing for Salt Lake City to host the Olympic games and pondering a possible run for office in Utah. Saletan picks up the story:

The [Salt Lake] Tribune, apparently taking its cue from Romney’s abortion-rights position in Massachusetts, described the would-be candidate as “pro-choice.” Romneywho had said nothing in Massachusetts when his spokesman called him “pro-choice,” and who had protested NARAL’s refusal to apply the term to him [when he ran for Massachusetts Senate] in 1994now reacted very differently. "I do not wish to be labeled pro-choice," he wrote in a letter to the Tribune. "I have never felt comfortable with the labels associated with the abortion issue."

But he didn’t run in Utah. He ran for governor of Massachusetts instead, in 2002. I quote Saletan on what happened next because it’s so much fun to watch him savor every delicious morsel of hypocrisy:

Announcing his candidacy on March 19, 2002, he pledged, “I will protect the right of a woman to choose.” Two weeks later, in his address to the Massachusetts Republican convention, he declared: “Believing in people is protecting their freedom to make their own life choices, even if their choice is different than yours. That choice is a deeply personal one, and the women of our state should make it based on their beliefs, not mine, not the government’s.”

To appreciate how avidly Romney reabsorbed and deployed pro-choice language in 2002, you have to watch him in action. One clip (watch it here) shows him seated with his wife on a sofa, assuring women that they need not fear him on social issues. He tells the interviewer: “So when asked, ‘Will I preserve and protect a woman's right to choose?’ I make an unequivocal answer: yes.”

Another clip (watch it here) shows Romney debating Democratic gubernatorial nominee Shannon O’Brien in October 2002. He uses the word “abortion” to describe Massachusetts law and his mother’s views, but never to characterize his own position. Twice, he promises not to change “our pro-choice laws in Massachusetts.” But the star of the show is a “woman’s right to choose.” Romney repeats that phrase seven times. I’m pretty sure that’s a world record.

Behind the scenes, Romney was even more ardent. He phoned the Republican Majority for Choice to request its endorsement. He exalted abortion rights in a questionnaire for Planned Parenthood. Responding to a NARAL survey, he wrote: “I respect and will protect a woman's right to choose. This choice is a deeply personal one. Women should be free to choose based on their own beliefs, not mine and not the government's.” (You can read his answers to the NARAL survey here and his answers to the Planned Parenthood survey here.) In a meeting with three officers of Mass NARAL, the state chapter of the pro-choice group, he was asked what he would do as governor if Roe were overturned. Romney didn’t have to say anything about the merits of Roe, but he did anyway. He said overturning it would be a “serious mistake for our country.” He also said the right to choose shouldn’t be taken away. And he volunteered that he would be a helpful voice in the national GOP. 

And so on. Truly, you owe it to yourself to read this piece. (I’d be very surprised if Rick Santorum hasn’t had a good cackle over it already.) As a friend and former colleague of Saletan’sone with whom I’ve differed politically now and then--I hope you’ll indulge me, dear reader, when I say: Bravo, Will.

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