Joan Vennochi

Romney’s not the only flip-flopper

(Associated Press)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / June 5, 2011

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HE’S A flip-flopper who can seem disconnected from average citizens, and wears health care reform as a political albatross around his neck.

That’s the standard line of attack against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But, the same critique could also apply to President Obama. That means if Romney gets past GOP doubters and wins his party’s nomination, the 2012 election could be a head-to-head between two men with similar vulnerabilities.

On the surface, they have little in common. Romney and Obama represent dramatically different backgrounds and cultivate vastly different political images. But they share some interesting traits.

With or without a tie, Romney is a stiff candidate who is overly reliant on PowerPoint. With or without a tie, Obama is more relaxed, but he can be overly reliant on teleprompters. Neither is particularly good at Bill Clintonesque emoting. You can tell that Romney is upset — or wants you to think he’s upset — only when his hair flops slightly onto his face. And from the gulf oil spill to the Tahrir Square rebellion, Obama’s cool demeanor opens him to criticism for remoteness.

What could really help Romney in any future showdown is their mutual flexibility when it comes to change they believe in.

Democrats delight in describing Romney as a “wishy-washy, flip-flopping politician who lacks any core convictions or principles and who you simply can’t trust to shoot straight with you,’’ as the Democratic National Committee put it in a recent press release. A new DNC-produced web video shows Romney taking both sides of the financial bailout, the stimulus bill, health reform, and the auto-loan packages.

And that’s just the start of Romney’s well-documented willingness to bend with the political winds. In 2012, he is highlighting his business experience and focusing on the economy. In 2008, he embraced his inner social conservative, a strategy that required numerous flip-flops and a hard slide to the right on abortion, stem-cell research, and gay rights.

Romney’s changing positions provide endless fodder for Republican rivals, not just Democrats. But what if he’s the nominee, and the GOP joins forces to turn Obama into John Kerry, by questioning his core convictions?

Guantanamo Bay is open, not closed, as candidate Obama pledged. Terrorists will be tried by military tribunals, not in civilian courts. The Bush tax cuts were extended, not rolled back. Obama just signed an extension of the controversial Patriot Act, a law he criticized as a presidential candidate. He committed more troops to Afghanistan, and the pace of withdrawal his administration will follow is unclear. As a US senator, he opposed a debt-limit increase. As president, he now supports it emphatically. With gas prices high, Obama is now talking about taking steps to speed oil and gas drilling on public lands — a switch from his earlier opposition to “drill, baby, drill.’’

After the Supreme Court overturned the District of Columbia’s gun ban, Obama, a handgun control proponent, said he favored both an individual’s right to own a gun and the government’s right to regulate ownership. Imagine if Romney said something like that. Of course, he more or less did. During the last presidential campaign, Romney said he supported the National Rifle Association, except when he disagreed with it.

In this election cycle, Romney is trying so hard to rebut his image as inveterate flip-flopper that he’s standing behind the Massachusetts health care law he championed as governor — even though it’s the issue that makes Romney most undesirable to his own party. That in turn inspires Democrats to praise him for his reform efforts. On this topic, too, Romney and Obama also have a lot in common, and it’s not only that the national law is modeled on the Massachusetts law. Both Romney and Obama started out opposing the “individual mandate,’’ the rule that every citizen must have health insurance. Both eventually embraced it.

The difference is the way the press describes such changes in political positions: coreless vs. nuanced, unprincipled vs. adaptable.

If the flip-flop fits, every politician should have to wear it. Luckily for Obama, most of the press won’t see it that way.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@