Why Doesn't Romney Just Take It Back?

Time and again, Romney doubles down rather than admit he's erred. Is he still terrified of being seen as a flip-flopper?

More than a year ago, Mitt Romney decided it was time to set the record straight on his health-care legislation in Massachusetts. Conservatives viewed it as a near deal-breaker, and if he planned to run for the Republican presidential nomination again, he was going to have to address their concerns; many, including the Wall Street Journal editorial board, were urging him to repudiate his signature achievement as governor, admit he was wrong to impose an insurance mandate, and move on.

But Romney didn't do that. Whether out of sincere conviction or political calculation, he decided he had to stand behind his record. And so, speaking in a lecture hall at the University of Michigan, accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation, Romney championed the Massachusetts law, complete with a robust defense of the individual mandate.

"I ... recognize that a lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake, that it was just a boneheaded idea, and I should just admit it was a mistake and walk away from it," he said. "There's only one problem: It wouldn't be honest. I, in fact, did what I believed was right for the people of my state."

Whatever Romney's ideological moorings, there was a clear political calculus to his stance. In his 2008 campaign, he'd suffered mightily from his reputation as a flip-flopper, a man with his finger in the political wind who changed his position depending on what he was running for. This time, Romney and his aides vowed, no one could accuse him of that. He would stand unflinchingly on principle, even when it cost him. No one would be able to accuse him of shifting with the tide.

Fast forward to today, when Romney is under fire for a leaked video from a fundraiser. On Monday night, he hastened to convene a press conference to clarify the damaging description of 47 percent of Americans as "victims" who are "dependent on government." You could imagine a candidate in that situation apologizing to those he'd offended, or admitting he'd made a blunder. But Romney would only go so far as to say his remarks were "not elegantly stated." He said he stood behind the gist of his comments:

It's a message which I'm going to carry and continue to carry, which is, look, the president's approach is attractive to people who aren't paying taxes, because, frankly, my discussion about lowering taxes isn't as attractive to them, and therefore I'm not likely to draw them in to my campaign as effectively as those who are in the middle. This is really a discussion about the political process of winning the election. And of course I want to help all Americans -- all Americans -- have a bright and prosperous future, and I'm convinced the president's approach has not done that and will not do that.

Romney's response was reminiscent of less than a week earlier, when, despite the intervening revelation of four American deaths in Libya, he had similarly declined to repudiate his statement criticizing the American embassy in Egypt for attempting to placate protesters: "I don't think we ever hesitate when we see something which is a violation of our principles," he said to a question about whether he'd been too quick to assign blame. "We express immediately when we feel that the president and his administration have done something which is inconsistent with the principles of America."

What these statements have in common is a refusal to back down, even when the facts have changed or a mistake has obviously been made. For better or worse, Romney -- the author of a book called No Apology -- has adopted a policy of never admitting to having erred.

But in this campaign, the main rap on Romney hasn't been that he's wishy-washy. It has been that he's a radical right-winger who doesn't relate to regular people. It's not clear whether this is because Romney successfully put the flip-flopper thing to rest, or because his opponent took a different strategic tack than expected and Romney failed to adapt, still fighting the 2008 war instead.

Would Romney be any better off politically admitting he screwed up from time to time? Could he have better repaired the damage had he come out last night and said, "Oops, that was terrible, I didn't mean that"? Maybe, maybe not. We turn for the last word to Al Sharpton, who has said and done many an ill-advised thing over his long career, and yet remains standing. Here, he told GQ's Marin Cogan recently, is what "the Rev" has learned:

The first thing you should say is, "I shouldn't have said it." You don't justify something. If you said something that's wrong or that was stated wrongly, say that. The public can accept a mistake. What they can't accept is you digging in and it's an obvious mistake.
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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