George Will Flip Flopped On Mitt Romney Flip-Flops

The venerable conservative columnist once endorsed Romney as a "good option for the Right" but now calls him "the pretzel candidate"

The venerable conservative columnist George Will has been brutal in his attacks on Mitt Romney, calling him the “pretzel candidate” and declaring “Republicans may have found their Michael Dukakis.”

What’s particularly odd about this, as Ramesh Ponnuru points out, is that Will sung a far different tune in March 2007. In a piece headlined “Three Good Options for the Right,” he argued:

The perfect is the enemy of the good. In politics this means that insisting on perfection in a candidate interferes with selecting a satisfactory one.


At CPAC, Romney gave the most polished speech, touching all the conservative movement’s erogenous zones, pointedly denouncing the “McCain-Kennedy” immigration bill and promising to seek repeal of the McCain-Feingold law regulating campaign speech. Romney, however, is criticized by many conservatives for what they consider multiple conversions of convenience — on abortion, stem cell research, gay rights, gun control. But if Romney is now locked into positions that these conservatives like, why do they care so much about whether political calculation or moral epiphany moved him there?

So, why, is Romney’s flip-flopping on these very same issues problematic?

“J,” blogging at Right Speak, thinks he knows the answer. Will’s wife, Mari Maseng, recently signed on as an advisor to the Perry campaign. More interestingly, she interviewed in late June for a position with the Romney campaign and didn’t get the job.

Now, “J” has a pretty good point that Will should have disclosed this conflict.* He apparently did not.

The optics are just awful. But I don’t think it’s the explanation for the change of attitude. The  ”pretzel candidate” piece came out a couple weeks before Maseng took the job with the Perry campaign. More importantly, Will declared back in May–before his wife interviewed for the Romney gig–“with reasonable certainty” that only Obama, Tim Pawlenty, or Mitch Daniels were plausible candidates to be president in 2013. Surely, the timeline works against the notion that Will is couching his punditry based on his wife’s career interests.  If anything, going against the ostensible Republican frontrunner in May harmed her.

So, what accounts for Will’s flip flop on Romney’s flip-flopping? I haven’t the foggiest. But he’s not alone.

As I’ve noted many times–and Ed Morrissey backs up my recollection–Romney was widely considered “the conservative alternative to John McCain” in 2008. But the definition of conservative has changed since then. And quite a few prominent conservatives and conservative organizations that championed Romney in 2008 are now desperately looking for Anybody But Romney in 2012.


*This is actually a tricky issue, as my own situation demonstrates. My wife is chief operating officer of a polling firm whose political clients include Mitt Romney. I’ve disclosed that fact numerous times in posts but don’t bring it up every time I blog on the race for several reasons. First, argument should stand alone; motivations don’t really matter. Second, my analysis simply isn’t colored by my wife’s work. Third, my opinions are often contrary to the interests of my wife’s clients and linking them to her firm’s work is unfair to all concerned. For a detailed explanation, see the Disclosures page linked at the top of the site.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. As I noted on Twitter, Will did address the issue of his wife’s employment during the Round Table segment of This Week today. If I’m able to find video I’ll post it in an update.

  2. Andyman says:

    To me this mirrors the HCR debate; positions that had vague consensus approval in Republican circles in 1993 were death-panel socialist anathema in 2009. Just like Gingrich is no longer willing to compromise on half a loaf re: mandates and insurance, pundits like Will aren’t in a compromising mood when critiquing candidates.

    There’s simply much less appetite on the right for messy, pragmatic, semi-moderate conservatism than there used to be, and it’s not like the Republicans ever had a reputation for coalition-building. In the Obama era, you’re either a true believer who’s checked off the entire myriad of litmus test positions since you’re in college or you’re a RINO.

  3. ponce says:

    I think the only reason right wing bloggers still pay attention to what Will has to say is because they dream about having his job one day.

    Outside the beltway, he’s about as relevant as Captain and Tennille.

  4. Ozark Hillbilly says:

    But the definition of conservative has changed since then.

    Who’da thunk it? George Will is a pretty good weather vane too.

  5. sam says:


    When Republican senators filibustered President Clinton’s economic stimulus bill in 1993, columnist George Will vigorously defended the Senate rule that requires the votes of at least 60 senators, a so-called supermajority, to impose an end to debate. In a column headlined “The Framers’ Intent” (Washington Post, 4/25/93), Will praised “the right of a minority to use extended debate to obstruct Senate action” and he cheered “the generation that wrote and ratified the Constitution” for properly establishing “the Senate’s permissive tradition regarding extended debates.”

    Dismissing a liberal critic of the rule, Will wrote: “The Senate is not obligated to jettison one of its defining characteristics, permissiveness regarding extended debate, in order to pander to the perception that the presidency is the sun around which all else in American government–even American life–orbits.”

    Ten years and an apparent Copernican Revolution later, Will reversed himself. In the column “Coup Against the Constitution” (Washington Post, 2/28/03), Will found the Senate rule he’d once draped in the mantle of original intent was in fact an affront to the framers.

    Concerned that “41 Senate Democrats” might succeed in stopping the confirmation of Miguel Estrada, nominated by George W. Bush to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Will wrote: “If Senate rules, exploited by an anti-constitutional minority, are allowed to trump the Constitution’s text and two centuries of practice, the Senate’s power to consent to judicial nominations will have become a Senate right to require a supermajority vote for confirmation.”

    By what intellectual pathway had Will’s seemingly immutable constitutional position changed? He never explained or even acknowledged holding the earlier, contradictory view. But something obvious had changed: In February 2003, it was a Democratic minority in the Senate trying to block the action of a Republican president, whereas in 1993 the parties’ roles were reversed.

    Edward Lazarus, a columnist for the legal website and the first to point out the hypocrisy in Will’s filibuster bluster (3/6/03), made an important observation when he noted the gap between Will’s supposed status as “an honest broker of ideas” and this “exquisitely brazen example of intellectual flip-floppery that has nothing to do with the law or the Constitution, or American history, and everything to do with conservative politics.”[ The Hypocrisy of George Will]

    And then there was these egregious lapses, presaging the current dustup:

    Will’s approach has been questioned in a few exceptional cases. During the 1980 campaign, he drew fire when it was learned he’d secretly coached Republican candidate Ronald Reagan for a debate with President Jimmy Carter using a debate briefing book stolen from the Carter campaign. Immediately following the debate, Will appeared on Nightline (10/28/80) to praise Reagan’s “thoroughbred performance,” never disclosing his role in rehearsing that performance (New York Times, 7/9).

    During the 1996 campaign, Will caught some criticism for commenting on the presidential race while his second wife, Mari Maseng Will, was a senior staffer for the Dole presidential campaign. Defending a Dole speech on ABC News (1/28/96), Will, according to Washingtonian (3/96), “failed to mention.… that his wife not only counseled Dole to give the speech but also helped write it.” Similarly, a Will column criticizing Clinton for proposing tariffs on Japanese luxury cars (5/19/95) included no mention that Maseng Will’s public relations firm had received almost $200,000 from the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association. When asked, Will defiantly dismissed any need for disclosure, declaring (Washington Post, 5/23/95), “I was for free trade long before I met my wife.”

    Will suffered another ethical lapse in the 2000 campaign when he met with George W. Bush just before the Republican candidate was to appear on ABC’s This Week. Later, in a column (Washington Post, 3/4/01), Will admitted that he’d met with Bush to preview questions, not wanting to “ambush him with unfamiliar material.” In the meeting, Will provided Bush with a 3-by-5 card containing a crucial question he would later ask the candidate on the air. Though strongly resembling his coaching of candidate Reagan in 1980, and in strong contrast to his treatment of Jesse Jackson in 1988, this extraordinary admission received little media mention. [op. cit.]

    I clearly recall the journalistic shitstorm consequent to his coaching Reagan and not disclosing it.

  6. Rick Almeida says:

    George Will is worth reading when he writes about baseball.

    Only then.

  7. matt b says:

    The issues of constant, contextual disclosure is becoming an increasingly big issue in journalism circles. Ditto constant restating of background information. This is an area where the restrictions of newsprint or broadcast media are still leading how journalism outlets deal with this issue. I personally love the idea of a disclosure page — but that’s something that works well on the web and not so well in traditional mass media.