I have trouble keeping Mitt Edwards and John Romney straight. I’m not even sure I’ve got the names right. They’re both superbly coiffed, youthfully trim, firm-jawed specimens who are equally at home discussing health care or modeling for the Brooks Brothers catalog. One was once named the sexiest politician in America, and the other is easily the sexiest Mormon politician in America.
In their views and policies, however, they could hardly be more different. Well, unless they had a good political reason to be.
Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, offers himself as a conservative champion on all major issues, steering well to the right of his major competitors, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Meanwhile, John Edwards, a former Democratic senator from North Carolina, has staked out territory well to the left of center, where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fear to tread.
I should warn you that while what I say about Edwards and Romney is true today, it may not be true tomorrow. Trying to describe either’s stance on the issues is like trying to paint a watercolor of the sky — before you can finish, it has changed beyond recognition.
Edwards, you might forget, ran for president in 2004 as a moderate Southerner in the mold of Bill Clinton. Coming from the home state of Jesse Helms, he had broken with his party’s left wing by voting for the Iraq war resolution and for normalizing trade relations with China.
When John Kerry was considering him as a running mate, a report in The Chicago Tribune speculated that "Edwards could attract Southern, independent and Republican votes." In this campaign, The Washington Post says "there has been a demonstrable shift to the left — on the Iraq war, health care and the federal budget deficit."
Romney shows a similar flair for discovering new ways to look at the world. He used to be what conservatives call a RINO (Republican In Name Only), for supporting gun control and abortion rights. Now he’s running as a pro-life member of the National Rifle Association. In his 1994 race against Sen. Ted Kennedy, he endorsed a federal bill to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. You will not faint from shock when I disclose that Romney now sees no need for such legislation.
He depicts himself as a fiscal conservative, but as governor, he got a "C" grade on the 2004 fiscal policy report card issued by the libertarian Cato Institute — below such non-conservatives as Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Democrat Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
Trying to hold Romney and Edwards to a position is like trying to climb up a waterslide on rollerblades. Edwards has renounced his vote for the war resolution and claims to be his party’s true antiwar leader. But in November 2003, long after it was clear that we would not find those weapons of mass destruction, he took a less categorical stance.
Asked if President Bush was right to go to war when he did, Edwards said, "You know, whether, if I had been president of the United States, I would have done this exactly like him, probably not, you know?"
Romney exhibits the same unpredictable approach on the subject of immigration. In 2005, he said the McCain-Kennedy bill, with its provision allowing illegal immigrants a chance to remain in the country and gain citizenship, did not amount to "amnesty." Now, he says it does. But as the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post reported, he recently said he would "not deny" illegal immigrants the "opportunity to apply for permanent residency or citizenship."
Pressed on how he would change the bill, Romney replied, "I’m not, here, going to describe language of a piece of legislation," and said he was "not really trying to define what is technically amnesty." That’s Mitt with an M — as in multiple choice.
In the end, the two bring to mind Mr. Potato Head, which is a fun toy because it can be configured in so many different ways — with legs where arms should be, or the mouth and nose reversed, or any other way you can think of. As with Mr. Potato Head, endless changes are not a violation of these candidates’ principles but an expression of their essence.
The upside of this flexibility is that watching them carries a current of suspense that their opponents can’t match. The downside? No matter how it changes, a potato head is still a potato head.