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The Changeable Mr. Romney

Our ideas are only intellectual instruments which we use to break into phenomena; we must change them when they have served their purpose.
— Claude Bernard, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine

It is a mark of the truly great man or woman who admits that he or she was wrong, irrespective of how often called upon to make such an admission and when a person is in the public eye for many years it is easy to say things that upon reflection are no longer reflective of one’s core beliefs. And that helps explain Mitt Romney who is endlessly accused of what is unkindly referred to as flip-flopping. His flips and flops are not the product of lack of character or conviction nor of expediency but are the result of sober reflection over the years and a thoughtful realization that earlier positions were wrong.

Mitt Romney(photo: Gage Skidmore)

There are, as would be true of all of us, many examples of Mr. Romney changing his mind upon sober reflection. The most recent example followed the Supreme Court health care decision. The Obama health care initiative was modeled after the Massachusetts law that Mr. Romney successfully saw enacted while serving as governor of Massachusetts. That plan, like the Obama plan, imposes a penalty on those who decline to purchase health insurance, subject to some exceptions. When he was governor Mr. Romney explained that that penalty was not a tax but a penalty. When the U.S. Supreme Court said the identical provision in the health care law was a tax, Mr. Romney immediately recognized the error of his earlier ways and said it was a tax. (In taking that position he was forced to contradict a close advisor, Eric Fehrnstrom, who mistakenly said, soon after the opinion was handed down, that he continued to think it should be called a penalty, fee or fine rather than a tax.)

Some years ago Mr. Romney supported a path for illegal immigrants to become citizens, but a year later he said there should be “no special pathway to citizenship.” When he ran for the Senate in 1994 and for governor in 2002 Mr. Romney was pro choice. During a 2002 gubernatorial debate he said: “I will preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard.” During the2012 primary election season he said he supported the reversal of Roe v. Wade that protects a woman’s right to an abortion. (It is too soon to know if the July 12, 2012 Boston Globe story that says he left Bain Capital three years later than he’s been telling everyone will cause him to change his public position with respect to them.)

All of the foregoing changes of position are easily understandable and I am indebted to the various people who have taken the time to catalogue these and other examples of how Mr. Romney has gone through life with an open mind and changed it when it seemed appropriate. There is, however, one position he has taken that has not been addressed by any of the commentators and on which he should be asked to say what he would do if elected. With respect to the health care law and abortion, among other things, he has clearly stated what he will do if elected. He has not said, nor has he been asked, what he will do about trees.

His interest in trees first came to our attention when in January of the 2008 primary season he told an audience that it was a thrill to be in Michigan in the winter “where the skies are cloudy all day, trees are just at the right height. . . .” And in November 2011 he again repeated his pleasure at being in Michigan where “The trees are at the right height. The grass is the right color for this time of year, kind of a brownish-greenish sort of thing. It just feels right.” His fascination with the height of Michigan trees continued when on February 21, 2012 he told an audience during a stump speech that he loved Michigan and explaining his affection said that “The trees are the right height.” Confident of his assertion he later reaffirmed his admiration for Michigan trees to another group using identical wording. The thing that should concern us all is if Mr. Romney changes his mind and decides that the Michigan trees are NOT the right height, will he order the forest service and the park service to take steps to bring all trees in Michigan to the “right height,” an effort that could have huge fiscal implications. A related question is whether the “right size” for Michigan trees is unique to that state or would he attempt to impose his views on trees in other states. For a number of years he felt the Massachusetts model of health care should be adopted by the federal government and if he took that approach with trees it would impose a huge burden on the entire nation.

Mr. Romney has not addressed the trees in any meetings with the press thus far. Perhaps it will come up at one of the debates. As a casual observer and not an official advisor to his campaign, I would hope that as he considers the question he not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

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