Mitt Romney’s Honesty Problem

This week, the Democratic National Committee released its “Mitt v. Mitt: The Story of Two Men in One Body” videos featuring back-to-back clips of Romney changing direction not just on abortion rights, but also on climate change, health care, TARP, and a host of other issues. Using voiceover to frame the contrasting positions as a matter of “corelessness” and “character,” the DNC videos end with the question “What does Romney believe?”

(“Believe” sounds to me like it could also be a dog whistle to voter uncertainties on Mormonism—just saying.)

Arianna Huffington followed the DNC ads with a blistering essay entitled “Mitt Romney Brazenly Lies and the Media Lets Him Slide” attacking Team Romney’s blatant misuse of recorded speech by Barack Obama in an anti-Obama ad that garnered a “Pants on Fire” rating from Politifact.

Of course, the questions Huffington and the DNC raise are not new. In 2007, Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi scrutinized “Romney’s Honesty Problem” on abortion, and John McCain’s presidential campaign developed an anti-Romney ad strikingly similar to the DNC’s.

But this time around, as attention continues to consolidate on Romney as once-and-future frontrunner, it seems clear that the honesty meme is going to stick. It may in fact be the issue that defines the Romney candidacy.

For even if we make allowances for a couple of substantial changes of mind or heart—and certainly every life deserves a few—there is enough videotape out there to make a pretty compelling case that for Romney, calculation prevails over principles in matters political, and that when confronted with questions about his own changes in position, rather than indulge in a candid (and humanizing) bit of public self-examination, the candidate will instead attempt to command assent by assertion of his rightness, with a force that can spill over into unpleasantness.

Democratic operatives are trying to brand this as an “honesty” issue, just as Romney’s Republican opponents did in 2007. And characterizing this a matter of honesty (as many have done) raises questions of character, ethics, and values that lend themselves to religious judgment. “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men,” states the last of thirteen Articles of Faith written up by LDS Church founder Joseph Smith as a statement of core Mormon principles.

I’ll leave that kind of judgment to others. For me, the more revealing question is one of leadership. Where did Mitt Romney learn that a leader should think and act tactically, but rather than risk appearing deliberative, flexible, and human, try instead to disable those who question him with the imperious force of his own assertion? How does this comport with what we know about his time at Bain Capital, or the particular tenor of his service as an LDS congregational lay leader?

I don’t think Mitt Romney learned this at home. Candor forced his father, George Romney, into an early exit from the 1968 Republican presidential primaries. Asked by a television interviewer why he’d changed his position on US involvement in Vietnam, George Romney calmly and confidently explained that he realized he’d been “brainwashed” on the war by American generals and that a subsequent study of regional history led him to believe that US intervention was not necessary. “I did change my mind,” George Romney said. That was some straight shooting, and George Romney paid for it.

Mitt Romney prefers a different strategy. And although his strategy is different than his father’s, it too may cost him. For even if we don’t expect politicians to be honest in 2012, we do expect them to be watchable. And there’s something about Mitt Romney’s assent-commanding imperiousness that gets tedious. It’s tiresome. It’s no fun.

And we’ve got at least nine months of it left to watch.