Still lacking ‘the courage of his absence of convictions’

The list of Mitt Romney’s flip-flops is already extremely long. What’s less appreciated is a separate list — the one referencing all the issues on which Romney is simply too afraid to take a position at all. It’s not quite as lengthy as the reversals, but it’s getting there.

In recent months, Romney has hedged on whether he supports President Obama’s plan for an extended payroll tax break in 2012. In one recent debate, Romney was reminded that if Congress doesn’t act on the payroll tax, every worker will take a hit in their paycheck next year. Asked for a response, Romney said, “No one likes to see tax increases, but…” before changing the subject.

So, last night, John Harwood tried to get a straight answer out of Romney, asking, “Speaker Gingrich just said he is not prepared to raise taxes on the American people in the middle of a slow economy like this. That’s what would happen if the payroll tax cut is not extended. Do you agree with him, and would you also support, when it comes down to it, an extension of the payroll tax cut?” Romney said he doesn’t “want to raise taxes on people in the middle of a recession.”

“So you’re for it?” Harwood asked. Romney dodged the question, so the co-moderator tried again.

HARWOOD: But to clarify, you agree with President Obama the payroll tax cut should be expanded?

ROMNEY: I want to keep our taxes down. I don’t want to raise any taxes anywhere. Let me tell you, I’m not looking to raise taxes. What I’m looking to do is to cut spending.

The problem is obvious. Romney doesn’t want to say he agrees with President Obama. He also doesn’t want to say he supports a tax increase affecting every American worker. It leaves Romney unwilling to say much of anything, because he simply doesn’t have the courage to state his actual views.

Greg Sargent summarized the trajectory of Romney’s position: “So, to recap: First Romney derided the payroll tax cut extension as a ‘Band-Aid’ solution. Then he kinda-sorta said maybe he supports it, claiming we shouldn’t raise taxes in a recession while acknowledging that not extending the payroll tax cut would constitute doing just that. And then his campaign refused to say clearly whether it should be extended. Got all that?”

Loud and clear.

On a related note, from the same debate, Jonathan Cohn highlighted a key moment in which Romney dissembled to the point of incoherence.

In a previous exchange about health care, Romney had talked about the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship — which, Republicans always say, the Affordable Care Act disrupts by introducing government meddling. But Romney’s position isn’t that government shouldn’t get involved in health care. It’s that the federal government shouldn’t get involved with health care. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney authorized a significant government intrusion into the health insurance system — and Romney has said he’d let other states do the same.

Harwood wanted to know why those two positions weren’t in contradiction — and Romney, who’s a superb debater, was actually flustered. Eventually, Romney changed the subject to Medicaid and a statement that “Obamacare is wrong.” He never answered the question because, I suspect, he doesn’t have an answer.

The larger takeaway from this is appreciating how easy it is for Romney to get stuck. When he’s not flip-flopping or reinventing his entire worldview, the former governor is ducking questions he doesn’t have the guts to answer.

Conservative columnist George Will recently slammed Romney as “a recidivist reviser of his principles,” who seems to “lack the courage of his absence of convictions.” That looks more and more accurate all the time.