Mitt morphs again, this time over START

Earlier this summer, former and perhaps current presidential contender Mitt Romney spoke out against the new START in the opinion pages of the Washington Post, reflecting the view of some conservatives. Here is national political columnist Dick Polman's response to Romney's attack, which can be found here.

We're familiar by now with Mitt Romney's chameleonic tendencies; if memory serves, the once and future White House aspirant spent most of 2007 trying to morph from moderate pragmatist to pitchfork populist, in the hopes that the Republican right would ingest his red meat without tasting his artificial ingredients.

The experiment didn't work - he lost to Mike Huckabee at the starting gate in Iowa - but the man is methodical and thus not easily dissuaded. With the '12 GOP nomination on the distant horizon, he's trying anew to woo the right- this time, by seemingly morphing into General Jack D. Ripper, the Dr. Strangelove movie character who fretted about how the Russkies were conspiring to steal our "precious bodily fluids."

Such was my conclusion, after reading the Washington Post guest column that ran under Romney's byline last month. Seeking to craft some commander-in-chief creds, he took aim at the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which was signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 8 and now faces ratification by two-thirds of the U.S Senate (a feat that would require the cooperation of eight Republican senators).

The new START, which basically replaces the old START that expired in December, mandates a 30 to 40 percent cut in the strategic nuclear warheads deployed by both nations, but Romney insisted in his guest column that the Senate should junk the pact because, in his allegedly expert opinion, the Russians ate Obama's lunch.

"By all indications," he writes, "the Obama administration has been badly out-negotiated." That statement happens to be false, but Romney needed to say it anyway, to conform to the prevailing conservative narrative about a feckless naif-in-chief who is purposely weakening America by draining our precious bodily fluids. We can't know, of course, whether Romney actually believes what he's saying about Obama - indeed, the new treaty has been endorsed by virtually every heavy hitter in the Republican foreign policy establishment, a fact that Romney somehow failed to mention in his guest column - but he had to say it anyway, for pandering purposes.

Conservatives haven't forgotten his earlier flip-flops, when he conveniently tacked rightward on social issues like abortion; others are well aware that many of Obama's health care reform provisions mirror ex-Gov. Romney's health care provisions in Massachusetts; still others, particularly in the evangelical Christian community, remain wary of his Mormon faith. Given those obstacles, his denunciation of START seems de rigueur.

Among many conservatives, particularly at hawkish think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, it's an article of faith (as opposed to fact) that the new START makes it tougher for Uncle Sam to build and deploy a missile-defense system. Conservative senators made this claim during a May18 meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee. Romney, in his column, duly toed the line: "New START impedes missile defense, our protection from nuclear proliferation rogue states such as Iran and North Korea."

But, as Defense Secretary (and George W. Bush holdover) Robert Gates has repeatedly pointed out, the new START says nothing about missile defense systems, and therefore it puts no limits on anything we might build. A number of Pentagon generals have already said this in Senate testimony. In fact, the new START has the same language framework as the old START - which, by the way, was developed by Ronald Reagan during the late '80s and was signed by the senior George Bush in 1991. Romney in his guest column never mentioned this essential Reagan connection.

He constantly hails Reagan while on the stump (implying, of course, that he is the true Reagan heir), but, truth be told, if Reagan the arms controller was around today, some on the hawkish right would probably assail him as a Republican In Name Only. And with respect to Romney's claim that Obama has bargained away our ability to defend ourselves "from nuclear proliferation rogue states such as Iran and North Korea," allow me to quote from the preamble of the treaty. Obama's negotiators inserted language declaring that America will continue "improving and deploying" missile defense systems, for the express purpose of foiling "limited missile launches" by "regional threats."

Romney's column is festooned with all kinds of fact-challenged goodies. For instance, he complains that the treaty imposes no limits on Russian "rail-based ICBMs" - a fascinating observation, given the fact that, according to arms experts, Russia doesn't even have any rail-based ICBMs. He also complains that, under the treaty, "Russia is free to mount a nearly unlimited number of ICBMs on bombers" - which would be quite a feat of engineering, given the fact that, by definition, intercontinental ballistic missiles fly above the atmosphere and thus are not mounted on bombers. On the credibility scale, Romney would have been better off claiming that he could see Russia from his house.

Romney never acknowledged in his column that START's supporters happen to include Henry Kissinger, ranking Foreign Relations Committee Republican Sen. Dick Lugar, Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz, Reagan Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, Reagan chief of staffers James Baker and Ken Duberstein, Nixon/Ford Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, Bush I national security adviser and Bush II foreign intelligence adviser Brent Scowcroft, and (with some caveats) Bush II national security adviser Stephen Hadley. (Lugar assailed Romney for recycling "discredited objections," and for being "unaware of arms control history and context.") But apparently Lugar and these other allegedly looney lefties, having blasphemed conservatism by joining with Obama in the spirit of bipartisanship, are no longer deemed fit to be mentioned in a GOP candidate's guest column.

All of which suggests that Romney's latest political panderings are merely a symptom of how far rightward the contemporary Republican base has traveled.

First publsihed at

Dick Polman is a national political columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
He is on the full-time faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, as "writer in residence." Dick has been a frequent guest on C-Span, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC. He covered the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential campaigns.

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