Don't Blame the GOP for Mitt Romney's Flip-Flops

What conservative issue will Mitt Romney fight for?

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As former Gov. Mitt Romney gets battered by the likes of George Will, expect to hear a lot more arguments along the following lines.

David Frum:

It's not Romney who is the flip-flopper. It's the conservative movement. It was only three years ago that Jim DeMint was praising the Massachusetts healthcare plan. Post-2009, conservatives have flip-flopped on individual mandates, they have flip-flopped on monetary policy, in these cases they have adopted ever more extreme positions.

Yes Romney has had to shape-shift to keep pace, and that's unfortunate. But don't blame him—blame them.

God bless David, but this is too cute. It's impossible to deny, at this point, that the idea of an individual mandate emerged from the right. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was forced to admit this onstage in the primary debate in Las Vegas.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

But that hardly means the conservative movement has flip-flopped on the issue.

Sure, it was a feature of the Senate Republican alternative to Hillarycare, but that was spearheaded by Sens. Lincoln Chafee and Bob Dole. If Frum would like to make the case that those guys were emblematic movement conservatives, he can go right ahead.

I was around Capitol Hill in the late-'90s and, truth be told, I don't remember hearing much about the mandate at all.

After Hillarycare unraveled, the healthcare debate came to focus on the late Rep. Charlie Norwood's " patients' bill of rights."

It was a genteel, middle-of-the-road proposal, sure to appeal to women voters (guaranteed access to OB-GYNs was a frequent talking point). It rattled around for a few years, garnered bipartisan support, but most Republicans were happy to see it wither.

[See photos of healthcare reform protests.]

On substance, conservatives pointed out, rightly, that the bill wouldn't do anything to increase access to insurance. And so they proposed market-friendly solutions (" association health plans," for example) that would have reduced the number of uninsured citizens by a few million.

That the patients bill of rights did nothing for the uninsured was always slightly embarrassing for Democrats to admit—but this was the safe, piecemeal strategy they had embraced until 2009, when they got regulations of that sort on insurance companies and coverage for most  of the uninsured, the costs for which would have to be borne by healthy people not paying into insurance pools (hence the need for an individual mandate).

Look: I'm not denying that some Republicans have been more than a little squirrelly on the mandate. I'm just saying it was never an issue that movement conservatives seriously fought for, to the extent that they thought about it all.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the GOP.]

Now, onto Michael Gerson, who praises Romney's pragmatism and downplays the risk that he'll flip-flop away from the movement after Inauguration Day. Moreover, Gerson argues that Romney's "multiple choice" reputation will actually strengthen the movement's grip on his presidency:

Precisely because he has a history of ideological heresy, it would be difficult for him to abandon his current, more conservative iteration. He has committed himself on key conservative issues. Having flipped, he could not flop without risking a conservative revolt. As a result, conservatives would have considerable leverage over a Romney administration.

This is interesting, I'll admit.

I would agree with Gerson that the chances of Romney switching back to pro-choice on abortion is vanishingly small. Ditto for embryonic stem-cell research. There really is no plausible way for Romney to climb back from these positions.

And when Romney said recently that "the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us," I was inclined to believe him. I can't see his administration spending a penny on climate change.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

The problem with Romney isn't that he's changed his mind on this or that issue. Every politician not named Rep. Ron Paul has done this.

The question Gerson and movement conservatives should be asking themselves about Romney isn't whether, having checked the right box now, he'll uncheck it later. It should be: Do you think he'd spend political capital or risk his presidency on any issue that you care about?

Put another way: Do you believe that Mitt Romney is more than nominally pro-life? Will he fight to change the status quo on abortion?

I suppose Gerson's assurance depends, too, on what constitutes a "key issue." Does the building of a border fence count? If so, does Gerson really believe that President Romney is going to build a "high-tech fence" to "secure the border"?

[Read Debate Club: Should the United States Build a Fence on Its Southern Border?]

How about gays in the military? Romney's most recent position on the issue is that he didn't think "Don't ask, don't tell" should have been interfered with. Does Gerson think Romney, a la former Sen. Rick Santorum, will fight to reinstate the policy?

Does Gerson think that Romney will try to dismantle Obamacare in its entirety—or just the " worst aspects" of it?

Romney isn't just a flip-flopper. He's just downright weaselly.