WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney: flexible pragmatist, or a politically soulless flip-flopper too eager to please?
Consider the 2012 Republican presidential candidate's revised explanation of the Massachusetts near-universal health care measure he signed into law while governor:
"We can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country, and it can be done without letting government take over health care," he wrote last year in his book "No Apology."
But earlier this year, as he prepared to launch his White House campaign — and convince skeptical conservatives that he was truly one of them — the new paperback version read differently.
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The line "we can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country" was gone. The next clause was changed to say, "and it was done without government taking over health care."
A subtle attempt at reinvention? Even though the Massachusetts law is widely considered a model for the 2010 federal health care law, which conservatives loathe?
"If you're looking for black and white answers, you're not going to get them from Mitt Romney," said Craig Robinson, the editor of The Iowa Republican, a GOP newsletter in the nation's first caucus state, which votes Jan. 3.
Romney says there's been no verbal chicanery.
"The hardback ... started to be written in January (2009) when the president was just inaugurated. We hadn't seen anything he had done yet," he said on Fox's "Hannity" program Nov. 21. At the time, President Barack Obama backed a "public option," or public insurance plan, an idea he quickly dropped.
"When the paperback came out a year or two later, we had already gone through the health care story," Romney said. "Out came a bill that was very different than what the original had looked like. So we updated the book."
His staff points to a 2007 speech in which he made the same argument he makes today: "A one-size-fits-all national health care system is bound to fail. It ignores the very dramatic differences between states and it relies on a Washington bureaucracy to manage."
But add this shifting nuance on health to position changes or tweaks on abortion, the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays, and a host of other issues, and Romney has a reputation as someone without a strong political core, an opportunistic flip-flopper who adjusts his stands as majority opinion shifts.
"He's all over the place, and people don't like that," said Jane Aitken, a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition, a conservative group that doesn't endorse candidates.
Romney, 64, wouldn't be interviewed for this profile.
His supporters maintain that his overarching philosophy of government is clear and consistent. He strongly believes that individuals can promote economic growth and change, and "government should be employed to assist and encourage that," said former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, a Romney adviser.
More important, Rath said, "He sees things that are broke, and he sees solutions. Ultimately he tries to fix things. That's the essence of who he is."
Strategist and veteran GOP activist Ron Kaufman points to Romney's "rationality and success as a (business) turnaround artist" as his strengths.
Romney explained the roots of his get-it-done governing philosophy in a 2007 interview with McClatchy.
The Detroit native recalled how, when he was 14 in 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower came to the family home for dinner. Eisenhower had just finished eight years as president, and he was friendly with Mitt's father, George, who then headed American Motors Corp.
The two men talked casually about a range of subjects, including American politics and World War II. "I saw that (presidents) were not Supermen who could leap tall buildings in a single bound," Mitt Romney said. "They were ordinary people with, in some cases, extraordinary talent."
He figured that his talent was as a problem-solver.
"Ronald Reagan didn't have all the answers to all the problems," Romney said, "but he knew how to motivate people and change a nation."
Reagan, though, had been active in pushing conservative causes for almost 30 years before his successful 1980 presidential run, and he'd developed a fiercely loyal following.
Romney likes to paint himself and his family as smart, analytical risk-takers, recalling how his great-great-grandfather Miles came to this country from England in 1837 after Mormon missionaries told him "God had been restored to the Earth by a young prophet."
The family, Romney said, has long been loyal to the church, a devotion "based on sanity and not on fanaticism."
Eventually, the Romneys settled in Michigan, where George Romney first headed American Motors, then served as Michigan's governor from 1963 to 1969, building a record as a fiscal conservative and a social moderate who was active in civil rights causes.
Mitt Romney adored his father.
"Work was never just a way to make a buck to my dad. There was a calling and purpose to it. It was about making life better for people," the son recalled.
Mitt Romney met Ann Davies in high school. On their first date, he picked her up in an American Motors Marlin and they saw "The Sound of Music." They've been married since 1969, and have five sons.
Romney attended Stanford University for two quarters, then went to France as a Mormon missionary for two and a half years. He then enrolled at Brigham Young University, graduated in 1971 and got an MBA from Harvard Business School and a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School.
He stayed in Massachusetts and joined Bain & Co., a management consulting company. In the mid-1980s, he co-founded Bain Capital, a spinoff venture-capital firm.
When recalling his time at Bain, Romney likes to cite successful ventures he helped establish, such as the Staples office-supply firm. Some efforts were less successful. Bain helped another firm buy a Marion, Ind., office-supply plant in the mid-1990s, cut the workforce 25 percent and then, a few months later, closed it altogether.
Labor union officials still seethe when discussing Romney.
"His business record is one of picking the meat off the bones to maximize profit for wealthy investors. In his case the meat was the middle class, picking away at jobs, decent wages and benefits plant by plant," said Tim Sullivan, the legislative and communications director for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.
Romney's business reputation helped propel him to political stardom. He ran for the Senate against Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994, and tried hard to paint himself as a center-right candidate — and even at times to Kennedy's left.
Romney supported abortion rights then: "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country; I have since the time that my mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as a U.S. Senate candidate," Romney said during a 1994 debate with Kennedy.
In October 1994 he appealed to gay-rights activists. He told the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group, that "if we are to achieve the goals we share, we must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern. My opponent cannot do this. I can and will." Kennedy had a long history as one of the nation's foremost civil rights champions.
Romney also told the Log Cabin group that the "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays in the military was "the first of a number of steps that will ultimately lead to gays and lesbians being able to serve openly and honestly in the nation's military."
But in a June 2007 New Hampshire debate, Romney, who then was seeking the GOP presidential nomination, had a different tone on the policy: "This is not the time to put in place a major change, a social experiment, in the middle of a war going on. I wouldn't change it at this point:"
Romney lost to Kennedy, but his 41 percent showing was seen as impressive.
By the late 1990s, a close friend asked Romney to rescue the scandal-plagued Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. "I couldn't help wondering if it (the Olympic task) was the doorway I had been looking for" to political prominence, he wrote.
The games' success helped kick that door open. By 2002, Massachusetts Republicans needed a strong gubernatorial candidate. Despite the state's reputation as a Democratic bastion, its voters historically have warmed to moderate, management-savvy Republicans.
The GOP had controlled the governor's office since 1991, but incumbent Jane Swift was increasingly unpopular. Swift left the race, and Romney the personable turnaround artist was the nominee — and won.
He ran once again as a centrist. Nicole Roos, the chair of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts' political committee, recalled a meeting with Romney in 2002.
"He said repeatedly in our interview with him that he would protect and defend a woman's right to choose under Massachusetts law," she said. "He even came out and told us we needed him. He said he'd be the most effective Republican in the country on the issue."
Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom disputed the account.
"I remember a very different meeting," he said. "It was tense. Mitt Romney refused to describe himself as pro-choice, but said he would uphold the law and not seek to change it. When they asked him specifically if he would appear at their rallies and parades, he said no."
During his 2003-07 governorship, Romney became more outspoken against abortion, telling a group of reporters in early 2006 that he was "firmly pro-life."
He tried to clarify his position in an August 2007 Iowa debate: "I never said I was pro-choice, but my position was effectively pro-choice. I changed my position," he said. "And I get tired of people that are holier-than-thou because they've been pro-life longer than I have."
Nothing provokes conservative suspicion, though, so much as his stand on health care.
"We're spending a billion dollars giving health care to people who don't have insurance,'' Romney explained to National Public Radio a few days after the Massachusetts law was enacted in 2006, "and my question was: Could we take that billion dollars and help the poor purchase insurance? Let them pay what they can afford. We'll subsidize what they can't."
Today he won't apologize for that law: "I, in fact, did what I believe was right for the people of my state," he says, but he adds that doesn't mean it's right for everyone everywhere. He wants the federal law repealed, and he'd let states determine their own approach.
Rachel Alexander, the editor of IntellectualConservative.com, a Web-based journal, urges viewing Romney as a convert to the right, not a flip-flopper.
"His record has mainly moved to the right, not flip-flopped back and forth like McCain and other well-known flip-floppers," she said, referring to Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee. "Unless he flip-flops back to the left on major issues like abortion, taxes, spending, foreign policy, etc., I don't think we can say he has no political soul yet."
Romney, in the 2007 interview, maintained that remaining flexible is a virtue: "When the time comes when I'm the nominee, I'll be able to go head to head with the person on the other side and say, 'OK, let's look at your list of how many places you changed your mind.' "
But Romney's efforts to finesse his views on health care policy, critics say, are emblematic of their concern about him:
"You have liberals saying Obamacare was patterned after the Massachusetts law, and he's saying no. There's some situational ethics here," New Hampshire's Aitken said.
Romney may have reasoned explanations for his positions, the skeptics say, but something about him just doesn't feel right.
"I go to events and listen to him, and it sounds fine," Iowa's Robinson said. "I get it. But there's nothing that tells me this is what he believes."
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