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Scot Lehigh

A flipper exposes a flopper

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / September 30, 2011

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IT’S A scene that would have been hard to imagine four years ago: Mitt Romney aggressively going after his chief rival for . . . changing his stands on the issues.

In other words, for flip-flopping. That, of course, is an accusation that has oft been aimed at Romney himself. Perhaps, just as it takes a thief to catch thief, it takes a flipper to expose a flopper, for Romney has been both deft and dogged in his pursuit of Perry over his controversial comments and conflicting statements on Social Security.

Last week, when the Texas governor tried to allay fears about his public pension plans, Mitt pounced, quipping that there was another Rick Perry abroad in the land who had recently said some quite different things.

“You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that,’’ he concluded.

It was a clever touch, both pointed and light. Now, any long-time Romney observer likely found himself saying: If there’s another Rick Perry out there, there must be a multiplicity of other Mitts. Like, say, the progressive young doppelganger of 1994, who favored abortion rights. And gun control. And gays eventually serving openly in the military. And who, horror of horrors, spoke slightingly of the Reagan years.

Alas, not-so-slick Rick simply doesn’t have Romney’s verbal agility. When he tried to press the case that Mitt had morphed so much that people couldn’t be sure what Romney they were dealing with, viewers were instead treated to a garbled glop of gallimaufry. To wit: “Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it was before he was before the social programs, from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe versus Wade before he was against Roe versus Wade? He was for Race to the Top, he’s for ObamaCare, and now he’s against it. I mean, we’ll wait until tomorrow and - and - and see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.’’

Now, if you’re familiar with Romney’s history - and if you still have your Tongue-Tied Texan Talk Decoder handy - you could certainly figure out what Perry meant. Still, that’s the kind of reply that has some despairing conservatives making late-night political booty calls to Chris Christie.

If the Romney-Perry onstage encounters have proved diverting political theater, offstage the battle has continued fast and furiously, with the two camps trading regular e-mail enfilades, accusing each other of retreats, evasions, distortions, and the like.

But here’s the overall takeaway. A nimble Romney has done real damage to Perry, both on Social Security and, on the non-flip-flop front, in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. As he’s tried to counterpunch, Perry has come off as clumsy. He’s run afoul of the fact-checkers both on his assertion that Romney edited his book to eliminate a clear assertion that RomneyCare should be a national model and on his claim that Romney backed Obama’s Race to the Top initiative. On both matters, Romney, who’s shrewd about couching both his written and his verbal remarks, can point to language that offers a reasonable rebuttal to those accusations.

Here’s the meta-question at play as the two trade charges: When does a flip lose its accusatory zip? Clearly, Perry’s Texas two-step on Social Security remains new and powerful campaign fodder - and so far, neither Perry nor his camp seems to know how to defuse the issue.

Romney’s big repositionings, by contrast, mostly came before his 2008 run. He wasn’t convincing back then when he tried to portray his flip-flops as principled evolutions or epiphanies rather than political expedience. Yet those changes are old news, which makes them less potent. And creates this irony: The candidate who was considered almost comically malleable in the last campaign hasn’t suffered particularly on that score this time around. What’s more, he‘s successfully using that line of attack to undermine his principal rival.

■Correction: My Wednesday column relocated the Edward W. Brooke charter school. It is in Roslindale.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.