It’s not often you can point to an article as “definitive,” but I suspect that is how William Saletan’s long, vastly-documented piece for Slate on Mitt Romney and abortion policy will be treated by just about everybody outside Romney’s own campaign.

Saletan’s key argument is that Romney’s history on abortion and such closely-related issues as stem cell research and contraception does not really involve a simple flip-flop or an “evolution” or (Mitt’s own preferred term) a “conversion,” but rather a perpetual effort at refining his identity to suit political convenience. What’s really jarring is how long Romney’s incoherence on all these issues persisted, and how much effort he put into evading a firm position:

In an interview published in USA Today on May 23, 2005, he again called himself “personally pro-life” but refused to clarify those words. “I don’t want to be confusing to people in my state,” he pleaded. At a press conference on May 27, Romney continued to duck questions. “My personal philosophical views about this issue,” he said, would only “distract from what I think is a more critical agenda” on jobs and education….

Romney’s media adviser, Mike Murphy, had a blunt explanation for the governor’s reticence. “He’s been a pro-life Mormon faking it as a pro-choice friendly,” Murphy told National Review in an interview published June 2. Murphy issued a pseudo-retraction, and the next day, Romney said his position hadn’t changed. When reporters asked Romney to lay out his views on abortion and Roe, the governor refused, saying, “I don’t want to get into a philosophical discussion of a federal law and a case that’s been in the books for 30 years and that is distracting from my agenda.”

Seven months after Romney’s purported epiphany, that’s how he saw abortion: as a distraction.

It was really only during the 2008 campaign, when Romney was seeking a critical endorsement from Jim DeMint, that he settled on his current anti-choice position, after many, many years of prevarication and self-contradiction.

Now politicians trim their sails to catch the prevailing winds all the time, and if that’s all Romney had done–tacked pro-choice when running for office in Massachusetts, and then tacked anti-choice when running or president–it wouldn’t be that shocking. But what comes across in Saletan’s account is a constant pattern of incremental self-reinvention–and perhaps even of self-deception–whereby Romney changed not just his position, but his story. It’s all more than a little creepy, and anyone who wants to understand this man and how he might govern should take the time to check it out.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.