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Social distortion
With an eye toward electability, Mitt Romney and Tom Reilly tackle stem-cell research and gay marriage

Two of THE state’s top politicians — Governor Mitt Romney and Attorney General Tom Reilly, the man who would replace him in 2006 — hit the headlines last week by expounding on hot-button social issues. On Wednesday, Romney added a major caveat to his long-standing support for stem-cell research, telling the New York Times he’d concluded that research using lines harvested from embryos created for that purpose is morally wrong. Extracting lines from pre-existing embryos is acceptable, the governor explained, because they’d probably just be thrown away anyway. But engineering embryos for research purposes "cross[es] the line of ethical conduct" and should be banned, he said.

Two days later, in an interview with NECN’s Jim Braude, Reilly hinted that his views on gay marriage also may have evolved. During the debate over gay marriage, Reilly had earned the wrath of its supporters by, among other things, suggesting that straight parents are better than gay ones, and working to stop out-of-state gay couples from marrying in Massachusetts. But during his chat with Braude, Reilly deployed the kind of rhetoric usually invoked by supporters of full marriage rights: "The sky didn’t fall in," Reilly said. "My marriage certainly hasn’t been impacted.... There is so much good that has come out of this."

Romney’s and Reilly’s remarks had a few things in common. Expediency, for one: by fine-tuning his views on stem-cell research, Romney — who’s on everybody’s short list of Republican presidential contenders for 2008, but who may be too moderate for red-meat Republicans — bowed to the right and bolstered his conservative credentials. And he did so in a highly calculated way, sharing his change of heart with the nationally read Times rather than with some measly Boston daily, and speaking up on the same day that Senate president Robert Travaglini filed legislation that would ban reproductive cloning but allow embryo creation for research. Meanwhile, Reilly’s words seemed aimed at mending ties with the gay electorate, which will be a key constituency in the 2006 gubernatorial race, and which has been lukewarm, or downright hostile, toward the attorney general’s still-undeclared candidacy thus far.

There’s another similarity: both men’s comments left major questions unanswered. Here’s one for Romney: if embryos are nascent human beings, not mere clumps of cells, destroying them is wrong whether you created them or not, right? And for Reilly: if your position hasn’t changed, why do so many people think it has? (Consider the disconnect between Steve Grossman, Democratic bigwig and key Reilly fundraiser, and Reilly last week. Grossman to the Boston Globe: "I have an enormous respect for Tom Reilly that he is willing to move to a new position on this issue and others." Reilly to the Boston Herald: "All you have to do is check the record and you will see I’ve been consistent.") Put simply, neither maneuver was especially compelling or convincing. But did either of our presumptive candidates fare better than his rival?

Let’s start with Romney, who has a long history of calibrating his beliefs to fit his political milieu. For example, during his 1994 US Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy, Romney cast himself as something of an abortion-rights supporter, assuring voters that, if elected, he wouldn’t work to overturn Roe v. Wade. ("It has been the law of the land for over 20 years, and I do not want to change it, overturn it, reverse it," Romney said at one point.) But several years later, during his time as Winter Olympics czar in conservative Salt Lake City, he shifted right: in a July 2001 letter to the Salt Lake Tribune, he bluntly stated, "I do not wish to be labeled prochoice." More recently, Romney wooed gay voters by casting himself as a moderate during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign — and then, after the Goodridge decision legalized same-sex marriage, he tacked hard to the right (see "Schiz Romney," News and Features, May 14, 2004). The low point came during last summer’s Republican National Convention in New York, when Romney — in a grotesquely demagogic moment — classed same-sex marriage and terrorism as two grave threats facing the nation.

Say this for the governor, though: he covers his ideological tracks well. In the case of abortion, for example, Romney never flat-out contradicted himself; instead, his perceived shift was a matter of tone and emphasis. Similarly, candidate Romney hardly cast himself as a champion of gay rights during the 2002 campaign. What he did instead was foster the vague sense that, if elected, he probably wouldn’t be all that bad on gay issues. In other words, by steering clear of specific promises and commitments, he allowed liberal and moderate voters to expect the best of him.

The stem-cell switch fits this pattern perfectly. Look at Romney’s old statements supporting stem-cell research, and it’s clear the governor has diligently avoided the thornier points of the science involved. In June 2002, for example, during an appearance at a Brandeis University bioethics forum, candidate Romney endorsed stem-cell research, and he even hinted he’d press President George W. Bush on the issue. But Romney — who had been slated to discuss stem cells and embryonic cloning with Democratic candidate Steve Grossman in a panel discussion — convinced conference organizers to allow him to speak solo, thereby avoiding any awkward exchanges in which Grossman or anyone else might force him to clarify his views. When the governor came out against creating embryos for stem-cell research last week, he didn’t flip-flop at all. He simply clarified a helpfully ambiguous position for maximum public effect.

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