Romney Rebooted Makes a Rare Calculating Error

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Shawn Thew / EPA

Republican candidate for President Mitt Romney responds to a question at a press conference in Fairfax, Virginia, Oct. 26, 2011.

Mitt Romney has put a lot of work into reversing the perception, prevalent during his 2008 campaign, that his ideological compass only follows the magnetic field of whichever electorate he happens to be trying to win over. The title of his campaign book, No Apology, was as much a statement of principle as it was a potshot at the (entirely fictional) bowing and scraping Obama has done overseas. He’s refused to cede an inch on the merits of his Massachusetts health reform program, despite the incredibly inconvenient fact that Democrats cribbed from it when they wrote their national overhaul. And Romney’s modus operandi for much of the past three years has been to carefully stake out a position on a given issue, make a focus group tested argument in a controlled environment, and ride out that stance come hell or high water. Not all his positions were well-received–his opposition to a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty baffled a few people in the foreign policy community–but he stuck to it. He stuck to all of them. Until Tuesday.

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Touring a phonebank in Ohio, where Republican volunteers were trying to build support for a ballot initiative that would prevent Governor John Kasich’s collective bargaining restrictions from being repealed in November, the intricate wiring of Romney 2.0’s motherboard short-circuited. When asked if he supported the cause, his databanks were unable to access the optimal answer. “I am not speaking about the particular ballot issues,” he said. “Those are up to the people of Ohio.” Conservatives were apoplectic and Romney was forced to make a quick course correction at a campaign appearance Wednesday in Virginia– “I fully support Gov. Kasich’s Question 2 in Ohio,” he said, adding a nonsensical superlative to restate his updated software’s immutable convictions: “110 percent.”

Ohio’s SB5, as the original bill and resulting law are known, is one of the flashpoints of the ongoing conflict between Republicans and unions. Romney has found common cause with conservatives on many major labor issues this year–he cut a check and issued a strong statement in support of Scott Walker’s collective bargaining bill in Wisconsin, used the National Labor Relations Board’s suit against Boeing to pillory President Obama, and spoke warmly of Kasich’s SB5 as recently as June–but the damage was done. Rick Perry eagerly blasted out a statement noting that “as a true conservative, I stand with Gov. Kasich,” and, adding insult to injury, rolled out the endorsement of former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell a day later.

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There are a few possible explanations for Romney’s freeze-up. Those who think the worst of Romney quickly assumed that he was simply crunching numbers and made a snap decision born of political expediency–a recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University found that voters in Ohio favor rolling SB5 back 57% to 32%, and that independents in the crucial swing state favor repeal 52% to 36%. It’s possible he was just confused; there are two ballot initiatives currently underway in Ohio, and the non-union measure is one that would outlaw health insurance mandates, something for which he clearly knows he can’t cheerlead. He may have unwittingly walked into the middle of an Ohio GOP turf war and been unprepared for the crossfire. Or maybe he just couldn’t recall if he’d staked out a position one way or the other on this issue in the past.

Whatever the explanation, SB5 doesn’t really carry great national weight, and the story is not, as much as Perry might like, really about a naked political flip-flop. Romney walked into those phonebank offices totally unprepared to answer an obvious question. It was sloppy. And that in itself is so out of character for the remade candidate and his polished 2012 presidential campaign that it warranted headlines.