Flip-Flopping all the Way to the White House

How our ex-pro-choice, for-gay-rights-before-he-was-against-them, varmint-huntin’, inimitably shifty, undeniably cunning former governor is turning flip-flopping into a surprisingly viable presidential campaign strategy.

It may be a required political skill, but no one feigns enthusiasm for a rubber chicken dinner like Mitt Romney.

On this Thursday night at a banquet hall in Agawam, he is going to put that ability to full use. Romney is here to give a speech to the Pioneer Valley chapter of the Massachusetts Citizens for Life (MCFL), which is holding its annual Mother’s Day dinner. But before the speechifying, there’s the feeding. And as bow-tied waiters put plates of chicken française in front of the 650 or so people who’ve turned out for the event, Romney, sitting on the dais underneath a giant banner proclaiming “A Baby Is a Mother’s Rose to God,” launches into a routine of gustatory glee. Although seemingly everyone else around him, including his wife, Ann, is picking at their plate, Romney digs into his meal as if he hasn’t been fed in weeks. Eating quickly, but not so quickly as to give the impression that he isn’t enjoying each and every morsel, he smiles or rolls his eyes after each bite. Finally, about halfway through his meal, he turns to Ann and pronounces his verdict in such an ostentatious manner that no lip reader could miss it. Delicious!

Romney has good reason to be such a gracious guest. It wasn’t long ago that he and the state’s largest anti-abortion group had a less than cordial relationship, a situation that had the potential to create a Swift boat–load of complications for his future political plans. But that was before Romney shifted his stance on abortion—and before his private foundation gave $15,000 to MCFL, and his wife volunteered to cochair the group’s $1 million capital campaign. As Romney’s opinions have evolved, so have the group’s. Indeed, on this night, the MCFL has seen fit to bestow on Romney a “political leadership award.” Suitably grateful, Romney isn’t just complimenting the food. He’s offering a loud “amen” after the benediction, and concluding the Pledge of Allegiance the way the pro-life crowd prefers: “With liberty and justice for all, born and unborn.”

And then there’s his speech. Although Romney typically gives his campaign stump speeches without notes, he’s leaving nothing to chance tonight. Relying on a teleprompter and religiously hewing to the text scrolling in front of him, Romney gives his audience the red meat it wants. He declares his support for abstinence education and his opposition to bilingual education. He expresses his outrage that one elementary school teacher started reading to second-graders a book called King and King, “about a prince who marries a prince!” And, in the ultimate ingratiating gesture, he offers up his own recent conversion as a testament to them. Looking out over the hundreds of pro-life activists, he solemnly proclaims, “I’m evidence that your work, that your relentless campaign to promote the sanctity of human life, bears fruit.”

It’s enough to make you gag—which, of course, is what many people in this state are doing. Having elected Romney as a pro-choice, pro-gay, moderate Republican governor only to watch him morph into a pro-life, anti-gay, right-wing presidential candidate who makes their state the butt of his jokes, these critics now wonder how anyone anywhere can take him seriously. In a political era in which authenticity is valued almost above all else, Romney is, in the words of Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, a “thoroughly counterfeit man.” And yet while such a perception should be the kiss of death for a presidential candidate—as it was for a certain Massachusetts poll three years ago—that hasn’t been the case thus far with Romney, whose makeover has been so successful, it has some political observers deeming him the frontrunner to win the GOP nomination.

The explanation for that paradox lies in the nature of Romney’s transformation, and in the nature of Romney himself. Romney isn’t just any flip-flopper. He’s a calculating flip-flopper. To lay the groundwork for a presidential run as a right-wing crusader, he hasn’t merely covered all the obvious bases—delivering the commencement address at Pat Robertson’s Regent University in May; inviting Christian-right heavyweights like Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham to his Belmont home for a powwow late last year—but he has also worked to get much more small-fry operations like the MCFL in his corner, neutralizing a potential political headache with a little money, a little wooing, and a 90-minute trek from Boston on a weekday night.

That approach turns out to be perfectly in keeping with the one thing about Romney that hasn’t changed: his disciplined, deliberate, and above all pragmatic approach to solving problems. Before entering politics, Romney spent two decades in the private sector, gaining a reputation as a turnaround artist who could go into the most dire situation and quickly right the ship. He’s now relying on the same skills to help him in a presidential campaign that requires turning around the Mitt Romney brand. In a way, it may be the greatest turnaround challenge he has ever faced. But it’s one he seems to relish—maybe because, after such a long string of successes, there aren’t many other real challenges out there.

When I asked Romney what one thing he learned in the private sector had proven most valuable in politics, he replied, “I guess it is that there is no problem that’s insoluble. Good decisions are made with good data and solid analysis. Instinct is a starting place, but data and analysis are essential to taking advantage of opportunities or blocking problems.” With most flip-floppers, we assume they’ve abandoned some core belief for political gain. With Romney, there may be no core to abandon. And whether in business or in politics, that has served him well. The question as he makes his run for president is how much longer it still can.

Romney famously idolizes his father, George Romney—though the figure he idolizes is not so much the politician who served three terms as Michigan’s governor and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, as the businessman who was CEO of American Motors. So when Romney was a young man looking for a career, it’s not surprising he chose the path he did.

After graduating from Brigham Young University, Romney headed to Cambridge in 1971, where he entered a rigorous joint degree program at Harvard’s business and law schools. He finished near the top of his class in both four years later and had any number of suitors knocking on his door. While he could have joined a big corporation such as General Electric and started his climb up the corporate ladder—the logical choice for someone in his position a generation earlier—he opted to enter the relatively young but booming field of management consulting. Rather than squandering years overseeing a boring product division like light bulbs before getting promoted to overseeing marginally less boring divisions (dishwashers! microwaves!), as a consultant he got to spend four- or five-month “engagements” doing big-picture business analysis for corporate clients, usually working directly with top executives, and then moving on to the next assignment. In a single year, he might work on improving the fortunes of an oil company, an automaker, and a textile manufacturer. For a restless mind like Romney’s, the constant change of pace proved irresistible.

After spending two years with Boston Consulting Group,
Romney jumped to a cutting-edge competitor, Bain & Company. While every consulting company relied on data, Bain made a fetish of it. In their charcoal suits and monogrammed shirts—founder Bill Bain gave each of his consultants a copy of Dress for Success—the Bainiacs, as they were called, tried to outdo one another in extracting ever more arcane pieces of data, until they had more data about a client than even the client itself. (In one famous and possibly apocryphal instance, a Bainiac desperate to know the number of workers a client’s competitor employed is said to have rented a helicopter so he could count the cars in the parking lot.)

The information was needed for what was at the heart of the Bain approach: the strategic audit. As Romney described it in his memoir, Turnaround:

[sidebar]“Our strategic audit took us to customers, to board members, to Wall Street analysts, to bankers, to suppliers, to former employees, and where possible, to competitors. We also got copies of every report that the company produced.… Every conceivable way of interpreting market shares, segmentation, business definition, cash flow, investment policy, competitive position, product quality, customer satisfaction, technology position, and countless other measures were employed. At the end of the strategic audit, we had a pretty good map of what was right and wrong in the business, of what had to be fixed, and which things were urgent and which were long term.

Among all the Bainiacs, Romney stood out. “Mitt was a master of the strategic audit,” recalls Bob White, whom Romney recruited to Bain in the early 1980s. Meg Whitman, another former Bain colleague and now CEO of eBay, remembers other consultants who clamored to get on Romney’s team. “He was the one you wanted to work for,” she says.

Like Whitman, a number of Romney’s Bain colleagues eventually left the consulting world to become top executives. Romney received his share of offers, too, but he stayed in the Bain nest, although he did shift to a different perch. In 1983, Bill Bain tapped the then 36-year-old to helm a new spinoff, Bain Capital, which, while employing the same analytical approach as Bain & Company, would actually invest in the companies it advised, thereby reaping some of the value created by the relationships. One of its early, and most famous, bets was on Staples: Romney became convinced that an office supply chain could succeed after tallying up invoices from various companies and discovering just how much they spent on paper clips and the like. Bain Capital, armed with that data, gave Staples founder Tom Stemberg $650,000 in 1986 to open his first store. And 21 years later, the company is an $18 billion behemoth. Along with those more glamorous deals, Bain Capital also executed leveraged buyouts, snapping up underperforming companies, making management changes to improve performance, and then selling at a huge profit, often having owned the companies for less than two years. Over the course of 15 years, Romney took a starting staff of seven and an initial fund of $37 million and helped grow Bain Capital into a 115-person enterprise managing $4 billion in assets—and made himself a very wealthy man. (In Romney’s financial disclosure forms, he lists his net worth at between $190 million and $250 million.)

When Romney finally left Bain in 1999, it was to rescue the Salt Lake City Olympic committee, which was mired in a bribery scandal and debt and was in danger of losing the 2002 Winter Games. His first move, naturally, was to perform a strategic audit. “It was a top-to-bottom review,” says Fraser Bullock, a former Bain colleague whom Romney recruited to serve as the games’ COO. “Every dollar, every penny was on the table. We looked at every opportunity to save money.” Romney decided some things long thought essential to the Olympic games—such as international youth camps and lavish hotel accommodations for visiting International Olympic Committee members—were superfluous and simply cut them, turning a $379 million deficit into a $100 million surplus. Although Romney himself wasn’t much of an athlete, he recognized that for the Salt Lake Olympics to succeed, he’d need to put the focus back on the competitions themselves. And if driving home that message meant learning how to ride a skeleton—a single-person sled that shoots down an ice track at speeds of up to 80 mph—and then doing it for Katie Couric while wearing a TV camera on his back during a live segment on the Today show, well, Romney was willing. “[It was] potentially the piece,” Romney explained in Turnaround, “that could transition national attention away from the allegations of wrongdoing toward the excitement of the games.”

As Massachusetts governor, Romney stuck with what he knew and applied the Bain approach to government. His most ambitious undertaking—providing health insurance for every Massachusetts resident—followed his old employer’s playbook to the letter. After a survey of state households found that many people eligible for Medicaid didn’t enroll, and that a sizable number of residents who could afford health insurance simply decided to forgo it, Romney eventually came up with a mandate system that, while not flawless, cannot be faulted for a lack of pragmatism or ambition.

“He comes in and goes, ‘Okay, I have a problem to be fixed. What do I need to do to fix it? What’s the core mission? And what do I need to do to achieve it?’” says Cindy Gillespie, a Washington lobbyist who advised Romney during his Olympic and gubernatorial stints. “He comes into a situation and there are no sacred cows.” That Romney would bring the same approach to a presidential campaign—where sacred cows are also known as political principles—was inevitable.

One morning not long ago I visited Romney’s headquarters, a bland three-story building on the edge of the North End. Romney keeps a corner office on the third floor, but he’s rarely there to use it. Though famous for micromanaging political tasks as governor—“right down to whether the state party receptionist should get paid 32 grand or 32.5,” says one Massachusetts politico—he has left the day-to-day operation of his campaign in the hands of Beth Myers, who served as chief of staff in his governor’s office. “Beth is like the chief executive officer, and I’m more like the chairman of the board,” Romney says.

The corporate analogy applies in other ways. Where the typical campaign headquarters has the feel of a college dorm, with pizza boxes and half-drained soda cans scattered about, what I saw at Romney’s had the feel of, well, a management consultant’s office. The staffers were dressed in corporate attire—coats and ties for the men, pantsuits for the women—and kept their cubicles neat. Romney’s strait-laced Mormonism seemed to have permeated the office as well. Unlike the foul-mouthed environment at most political operations, the language in Romney’s headquarters was as clean as a Wiggles album. The closest thing to a curse word I ever heard in Romney World was when one of his aides apologized to me for being unable to answer a question. “I know I must sound like a”—and here she dropped her voice to a whisper and looked over her shoulder—“J.A.” Now, that’s discipline.

What’s on display in Romney’s campaign offices isn’t some Potemkin façade. “Mitt Romney personally, and the operation he’s put together, are as organized as any presidential campaign I’ve ever covered,” says Time senior political analyst Mark Halperin. “That’s a huge benefit, and I’d say as much as any other single feature of him or his campaign, that ac
counts for the success he’s had. I think it currently makes him the frontrunner.”

Romney’s march to the head of the field has been nothing short of remarkable. When he first started laying the groundwork for a White House run, he hadn’t even been in the governor’s office for six months; if he was known outside Massachusetts, it was as the “Olympics guy.” The best way to quickly build a national brand, Romney decided, was to target not voters at large, but political insiders in key states. Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican operative who managed Romney’s gubernatorial campaign, helped establish the requisite political action committee so Romney could make campaign contributions to these local players—the surest way to gain their affections. But Romney’s Commonwealth PAC differed from those of other presidential wannabes in two key ways. First, it took the innovative step of setting up affiliates in five states—some of which had no limits on contributions—allowing Romney’s rich friends to give as much as six figures (supporters of Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, by contrast, were limited to $5,000 contributions to those candidates’ federal PACs). Second, the Commonwealth PAC focused its giving on the lower rungs of the political ladder. So rather than donate $5,000 to, say, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the PAC would send a few hundred dollars to a county Republican chairman in need of campaign signs for his school board candidate. “The entire county party budget might be $10,000 for the year, and all of a sudden $500 shows up from Boston,” says Murphy, who’s no longer working for Romney and has so far remained neutral in this year’s race. “It did a lot to get the buzz going about Mitt.”

The Romney operation’s innovative approach to finance continues. While most candidates keep their fundraising behind closed doors, Romney has turned his into media events, as he did in January when he brought 400 supporters to the third floor of the Boston Convention Center to dial for dollars—and collect $6.5 million in less than a day—in front of reporters. “Trying to hide a fundraising event or the fact that we’re fundraising doesn’t help us,” says Spencer Zwick, the campaign’s 28-year-old head of finance. “Raising money encourages more money.” It also catches the eye of the political reporters and junkies who are the only ones paying attention at this stage. “I used to think that George W. Bush’s fundraising in ’99 was the most impressive political achievement I’ve ever covered, but I think Romney’s fundraising in the first quarter this year [he brought in $21 million] is even more impressive,” says Halperin. “Bush did his when he was the clear frontrunner. Romney did it at 3 percent in the polls.”

Romney hasn’t been shy about spending the $40 million or so he’s raised (some $9 million of which has come in the form of loans from the candidate himself), blowing through $31 million of it in the first half of the year. The profligacy has drawn some nasty headlines, but it’s profligacy with a purpose. With his competitors months away from running many, if any, ads, the more than $4 million Romney has dropped to flood the airwaves in early primary states has had him leading in Iowa (where he last month won the Ames straw poll) and New Hampshire—and though he’s still lagging in national surveys, his lead in those key states has added to the sense of momentum. The money has also helped assemble a top-notch staff. And whatever it’s buying, the Romney people insist, they know where every penny is going. Every expenditure—indeed, every aspect of the campaign—is closely tracked. The campaign has data for everything. “We have a series of metrics and benchmarks that people internally are held accountable to,” says Romney’s oldest son, Tagg, a key campaign adviser, who has a background in marketing. “We know how many phone calls volunteers in New Hampshire made yesterday.”

The most crucial aspect of the Romney campaign, though, is the strategic audit Romney conducted at its outset. He did, as he put it to me, the “obligatory reading” of campaign books. He visited early primary states. (“It was really important for him to go to places like South Carolina to try to see how they’d react to him as a Mormon, to get a feel for whether that world would ever accept him,” says one Romney associate.) And, most important, he consulted the experts, including former President George H. W. Bush, whom he visited at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport. “He’s basically still got the management consultant mentality,” explains one Romney associate. “At Bain they’d say, ‘Let’s take over this fast-food chain.’ And someone would say, ‘But you don’t have any expertise in restaurants.’ And they’d be like, ‘We can figure this out—it’s just like anything else.’ Mitt’s an extremely smart guy, and he’s been very successful in business. And he approaches politics in the same way: ‘I’m smart enough, they’re dumb enough, and I can figure it out. With enough smarts and enough money, I can do anything.’”

The central choice confronting Romney was what kind of candidate he should run as. With his business success and largely moderate political record, he seemed well positioned to cast himself as the competence candidate—a perfect antidote to the current occupant of the Oval Office. (Though Romney has known Bush since they attended Harvard Business School together, they couldn’t be more different in their managerial approaches. “I don’t think Brownie will be running anything if Mitt is president,” says a Romney business associate.) But as veteran Massachusetts consultant and Romney adviser Ron Kaufman concedes, “It’s hard to say, ‘Vote for Mitt, he’s competent.’ That doesn’t have a lot of sizzle.” Especially in a GOP presidential primary. What’s more, the field for 2008 was lacking a credible social-conservative candidate: John McCain was making moves in that direction, but he had too long a history of ideological heterodoxy. Rudy Giuliani’s pro-choice views—to say nothing of his personal life—made him anathema to large swaths of the GOP base. George Allen, the candidate who seemed most likely to occupy the true conservative niche, took himself out of consideration by losing his Senate seat, and Fred Thompson wasn’t yet making serious noises about a possible run. The available data thus analyzed, Romney made a decision. “At a certain point, they made a strategic call that he was going to run as the conservative as opposed to the effective manager,” one person familiar with the Romney operation tells me. “And Mitt made the necessary adjustments.”

The Romney campaign vigorously disputes the notion that there’s anything strategic about the rightward shift. “People act like Mitt Romney changed his position on abortion the day after he announced he was running for president,” says Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom. “But in fact it happened two years ago. He had a change of heart that was sincere and heartfelt.” Indeed, as Romney has told the story, he changed his mind on abortion following a November 2004 meeting with a Harvard stem cell researcher who told the then governor that his research was not a moral issue, “because we kill the embryos after 14 days.” It was that encounter that led Romney to conclude that “the Roe v. Wade mentality has so cheapened the value of human life that rational people saw human life as mere research material to be used and then destroyed.” The Harvard scientist has disputed Rom
ney’s characterization of their meeting, but even if the story is true, there’s the inconvenient truth that at the time it happened, Romney was already thinking about a presidential bid.

Still, what’s most notable about Romney’s story is that he has one, and how perfectly pitched it is to appeal to a certain type of voter. The heartfelt conversion triggered by, of all things, a heartless scientist from Harvard—it makes his pro-life views, in the eyes of some conservatives, even more impressive. One prominent Massachusetts Republican, summing up the genius of how Romney has packaged his transformation, puts it this way: “There are a lot of similarities between John Kerry and Mitt Romney, in that they have no core convictions. The only difference is Mitt is significantly smarter than John Kerry.”

On a warm, sunny day in New Hampshire, Romney is in Laconia making his sales pitch. If anything, Romney’s world on the campaign trail is even more disciplined and buttoned-down than the one back in his campaign headquarters. He has just come from an appearance at a high school, where he stood onstage in front of a giant American flag, making him look like George C. Scott in Patton, and now he’s in the top room of an old mill that his advance team has festooned with a riot of red, white, and blue bunting. Just out of view of the TV cameras are the two omnipresent men who, although they resemble Secret Service agents with their dark suits, earpieces, and sleeve mikes, are in fact mere campaign aides, assigned to run interference for the candidate. The event is billed as one of his “Ask Mitt Anything” sessions. But the Romney aides, with what has become almost a signature overzealousness, have made sure that the person dressed in a dolphin suit who called himself Flipper—in homage to the candidate’s ever changing positions—was escorted out lest he pose any questions Romney would prefer not be voiced.

Though obviously smart and confident, Romney lives in perpetual fear of making a mistake. “When the camera’s rolling, you’ve got to be careful not to say something that may be misinterpreted,” he told me. “Everything you say to every person is potentially going to be on YouTube, so you’ve got to be careful of the jokes you tell, you’ve got to be careful of the flippant comments, because this is a very serious process and you want to make sure you’re saying what you actually mean.” But Romney’s caution also stems from the fact that he’s running on issues he’s never run on before, which makes the campaign trail a minefield.

Speaking in Laconia, Romney swats down a query from a supporter of medical marijuana, drawing applause, and parries a question from a woman who, reading from a sheet, accuses him of holding inconsistent positions on Iraq. “Your material needs to be cleaned up,” he chides her, before explaining why he wasn’t being inconsistent at all. Then Romney calls on a young man in the back of the room. “Do you think abortion is murder?” the man asks. It’s a straightforward question and, for most pro-life pols, a straightforward answer. Romney, though, seems taken aback. He pauses for a second and then embarks on a rambling, hesitant response. “You know, I don’t want to use that term, because it means different things to different people,” he says. “But without question, it’s taking a human life. Murder—I used to go to law school—murder has malice aforethought and all sorts of other things that are associated with it, but it is taking a human life.” A few days later, the presidential campaign of Kansas Senator Sam Brownback blasts Romney—“Unlike Romney, Sam Brownback…is genuinely pro-life”—and David Brody, the influential Christian Broadcast Network News political reporter, admonishes Romney for flubbing a “no-brainer,” leading the campaign to issue a statement clarifying his remarks.

But the controversy over Romney’s flub soon passes, joining the other hiccups occasioned by his makeover—like his dubious claim to be a lifelong hunter of “varmint,” which hasn’t seemed to hurt him with gun owners; or his invocation of Castro’s favorite phrase, “fatherland or death,” which isn’t causing him too many problems in Florida. With Romney’s biggest, most crucial flip-flop—his decision to dump centrism for right-wing dogma—behind him, he has built a campaign around himself that can compensate for such mistakes. Romney may never be able to convince people in Massachusetts that his conversion was sincere (not after they’ve witnessed the untidy process of him making it), but those who are encountering Romney for the first time aren’t burdened with that sort of baggage. With enough flattery, enough money, enough red, white, and blue bunting, and enough ever reliable data, Romney’s betting he can win over these kinds of voters—and, in the process, overcome himself. It’s a bet, as shocking as it might be to his former constituents, that he just might win.