WASHINGTON -- When the Democratic National Committee circulates an ad attacking Mitt Romney even before the Iowa caucuses -- and long before his presidential nomination is clear -- one can be fairly certain that Romney is considered the greatest threat to a second Obama term.
This alone should be sufficient endorsement to get reluctant Republicans on board, except for the fact that the ad is very effective. Titled "Mitt v. Mitt: The story of two men trapped in one body," the ad traces the many now-familiar "flip-flops" of Romney's political career, from the seminal pro-choice to pro-life position to his disapproval of "Obamacare," which, as the president never tires of pointing out, was modeled on "Romneycare."
The ad is good. The message is profound. And the effect may be irreversible. Nevertheless, voters deserve to know more than what a spliced-and-diced commercial suggests. As anyone in public life knows, a creative (or malicious) editor can create any impression desired regardless of context or reality on the ground. Watching the ad closely, you see not only a changing position but also a changing Romney, from a youngish man with black hair to an older model with graying hair. Might the man have matured?
This is not to suggest that Romney hasn't changed his mind. There is a record. Then again, who but the most-barnacled ideologue hasn't had a change of heart given new information (abortion), experience (Romneycare) or circumstances (a national versus a state election)? Ironically, Romney has become a more-conservative candidate because of his shifts, while the narrative that he is merely politically expedient rather than principled seems to be a contest between the pot and the kettle. Mirror, mirror.
It is helpful to know more about a person's position than a carefully selected sound bite permits, but Romney's attempts to explain himself have failed to gain traction. So how does a person change from one position to the polar opposite on such a core issue as abortion? Easy. Countless women have changed their minds thanks to pregnancy and birth. Countless others have suffered the agony of revelation too late following an abortion. Men overjoyed by fatherhood, or crushed by the loss of a child through abortion, have also changed their minds.
Romney's own change of heart evolved not from personal experience but rather from a purposeful course of study. I know this because I know the man who instructed him in 2005 on the basics of embryonic life during the stem cell research debate then taking place in Massachusetts. As governor at the time, Romney was under intense pressure to help flip a state law that protected embryos from stem cell research. Some of that pressure came from Harvard University, Romney's alma mater, where scientists hoped to assume a leading role in stem cell research.
The politically expedient choice was obvious, but Romney took a more-thoughtful approach and sought to educate himself before staking out a position. Enter William Hurlbut, a physician and professor of biomedical ethics at Stanford University Medical School. For several hours, Hurlbut and Romney met in the governor's office and went through the dynamics of conception, embryonic development and the repercussions of research that targets nascent human life. It was not a light lunch.
The result of that conversation and others was a pro-life Romney, who, though he kept his campaign promise to honor the state's democratically asserted preference for abortion choice, began a new personal path that happened to serve him well, at least theoretically, among social conservatives. Was his conversion sincere? No one can know another's heart, but Hurlbut is convinced that it was.
"Several things about our conversation still stand out strongly in my mind," Hurlbut told me. "First, he clearly recognized the significance of the issue, not just as a current controversy, but as a matter that would define the character of our culture way into the future.
"Second, it was obvious that he had put in a real effort to understand both the scientific prospects and the broader social implications. Finally, I was impressed by both his clarity of mind and sincerity of heart. ... He recognized that this was not a matter of purely abstract theory or merely pragmatic governance, but a crucial moment in how we are to regard nascent human life and the broader meaning of medicine in the service of life."
Whether one agrees with Hurlbut's appraisal or Romney's conclusions, this was at least a flip-flop of a higher order. Would that all our politics were so painstakingly crafted.
Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker(at)washpost.com.
(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group