My colleague Matthew Schmitz has asked whether Romney betrayed social conservatives at Tuesday’s debate, and his answer is no.
As he points out, Romney technically did not contradict his earlier statements about the HHS mandate, and considering that the debate moderator was pushing him to answer a different question, we could hardly have expected him to address the issue in full. Yet as someone who cares about religious liberty, I remain nervous, for there appears to be more than one Mitt Romney.
The Romney of the Republican primaries, the campaign website, and the Catholic media seems solid: He opposes the mandate and believes religious institutions should not have to pay for devices or procedures they find morally objectionable.
The Romney of last night’s debate, on the other hand, would rather assure women of their continuing access to contraception than assure religious groups that they will not be forced to betray their consciences. He does not want to rock the boat.
And this apparent desire to avoid confrontation, to say and do whatever pleases potential supporters, has been evident throughout the man’s political career. No matter the audience (the Massachusetts electorate of 2002, the Republican party base of this summer’s primaries, or the average American swing voter this fall) and no matter the topic (abortion, health care, gun control, the tax code), Romney seeks first of all to sound agreeable.
He’s certainly not the first politician to pander or flip-flop. But when I saw his performance last night in the context of his career, I was left doubting that he’d actually stand up for religious liberty while in office.