Mitt Romney received a warm reception before the crowd here at the Conservative Political Action Conference, with standing ovations before and after he spoke, and in several times in between. But compare his speech to his actual record, and it doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny.
His speech was an exercise in market-tested checklist conservatism – telling the audience what they wanted to hear. I counted 24 uses of the words “conservative” or “conservatism” in his speech. He promised to be a pro-life president who would fight for a federal marriage amendment and repeal Obamacare. He also said he was on the “same page” as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on entitlement reform, an issue he spoke about to the conservative Americans for Prosperity in November, but has rarely discussed since on the campaign trail.
Romney was at its strongest when he argued that his executive experience would make him better prepared to be president than any of his rivals. But he was at his least convincing when he tried to portray himself as a true conservative.
Clearly conscience of the skepticism of his conversion to conservatism, Romney sought to make the case that it was genuine.
“As conservatives, we are united by a set of core commitments,” he said. “But not everyone has taken the same path to get here. There are college students at this conference who are reading Burke and Hayek. When I was your age, you could have told me they were infielders for the Detroit Tigers. Some of you work in think tanks or follow the writings of prominent leaders. Some of you have worked in government or labored on the front lines of conservative causes. I salute you all.”
He continued, “My path to conservatism came from my family, my faith, and my life’s work.”
The problem is, everything about his business career, family background and faith were just as true in 1994 or 2002. And at that time, he was pro-choice, pro-gun control and anti-Ronald Reagan – just for starters. It wasn’t until around 2005 that he started publicly describing himself as a “conservative” – and even after that imposed a universal health care plan on Massachusetts that was the model for President Obama’s national health care law.
“I know this President will never get it, but we conservatives aren’t just proud to cling to our guns and to our religion,” Romney said. “We are also proud to cling to our Constitution!”
It’s ironic that he’d say that, because Romney advocated the federal assault weapons ban in 1994 and signed a state level ban in 2004.
Romney touted his record in Massachusetts as “conservative,” but absent from his speech was a description of his crowning achievement as governor – his health care plan. Like the national health care law, it expanded Medicaid, forced individuals to purchase government-approved insurance policies or pay a fine, and provided government subsidies for individuals to purchase government-designed insurance policies on a government-run exchange.
Ultimately, nothing Romney can say will erase his actual record. But the question is whether he can convince conservatives that he means what he’s saying now – or at least that there’s enough of a chance that he means it now to take a chance on him.