Mitt Romney Can't Afford Any More Flip-Flops

His shifts on the Ohio unionizing bill have done little to counteract arguments he's a political animal who lacks conviction

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FAIRFAX, Va. -- Plenty of voters already suspect that Mitt Romney is a calculating, politically driven candidate. And then he goes and proves it.

On Tuesday, he told reporters in Ohio he had no opinion on the ballot measures that will go before the state's voters in a couple of weeks, including one that would cement restrictions on collective bargaining. But a few months ago, he'd expressed support for the same initiative. The difference? In the interim, the measure has become broadly unpopular and appears likely to lose.

On Wednesday, Romney appeared in Northern Virginia and tried to pass the whole thing off as a misunderstanding.

"Oh, I'm sorry if I created any confusion regarding that," Romney told reporters at the headquarters of the Fairfax County Republican Party. "I fully support Governor [John] Kasich's, I think it's called Question 2 in Ohio. Fully support that. ... I am 110 percent behind Governor Kasich and in support of that."

The potential confusion, he said, came from his stance on the other GOP-backed Ohio ballot question, which would repudiate state and federal health-care mandates. That's the one Romney -- who once imposed such a mandate on the people of Massachusetts -- meant to say he was staying out of: "I've said that that should be up to individual states. I of course took my state in one direction. They may want to go in a different direction. I don't want to tell them what I think they ought to do in that regard. ... It was with regard to that issue that I didn't want to make a commitment."

But what Romney said Tuesday was pretty clear: "I am not speaking about the particular ballot issues. Those are up to the people of Ohio," he said, adding, "I am not terribly familiar with the two ballot initiatives."

To Romney's detractors on the right and left alike, the dust-up perfectly illustrates why the former Massachusetts governor can't be trusted. ("4th position. Getting seasick," tweeted the Obama campaign's press secretary, Ben LaBolt, in response to Romney's statement Wednesday.) It seemed of a piece with his statement in the last debate when he recalled his anger that a company he'd contracted to work on his property had employed illegal immigrants: "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake. I can't have illegals."

In an election where Republican voters want an authentic champion to channel their anger, Romney hasn't managed to shake the rap that he's the kind of politician who has to check the record to figure out where he stands on a particular issue. It was particularly galling to many conservatives that his hesitation came this week on an issue dear to their hearts -- reining in public-sector unions. Ohio's GOP legislature sought the restrictions that the ballot measure would affirm in the wake of the legislative standoff over union rights in Wisconsin in February.

Romney's slip in Ohio was immediately seized upon by a newly opportunistic Rick Perry campaign.

The Texas governor's communications director, Ray Sullivan, quickly fired off a statement Tuesday: "Mitt Romney's finger-in-the-wind politics continued today when he refused to support right-to-work reforms signed by Ohio Governor John Kasich -- reforms Romney supported in June. Americans are tired of politicians who change their beliefs to match public opinion polls."

And Perry, appearing on Fox News Tuesday night, twisted the knife: "I think in his own words he says, 'Listen, I need to say whatever I need to say for whatever office I'm running for.'"

At his Virginia appearance, Romney was also asked about Perry's newly announced tax plan -- "I like my tax plan better," he said. And Virginia's popular Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, was pressed on whether he'd endorse Romney and whether he was seeking the No. 2 spot on the ticket.

"There are no endorsements today, although those are always welcome," Romney said. McDonnell said he thought a "governor or former governor" would make the best president because of the executive decision-making involved, but wasn't willing to narrow it down further than that. Romney said it would be "presumptuous" to think about a vice-presidential nominee at this stage.

For the GOP voters not convinced that Romney's their guy -- polls show it to be a stubborn majority -- it hasn't been clear they have a better option. But Romney can hardly afford to keep giving them reasons to keep looking.

Image credit: Getty Images/Win McNamee

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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