You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How Mitt Romney’s Abortion Rhetoric Is One Big Exercise in Gaslighting

I sometimes get the sense that Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is one big exercise in gaslighting the country. If you’re not familiar with the term, it comes from the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film “Gaslight,” in which a man tries to convince his wife that she’s imagining things and going insane when in fact he is an evil creep. 

For the record, I am not calling Mitt Romney an evil creep.

Gaslighting is at times the only explanation for Romney’s willingness to say things that are breathtakingly false. The most recent example I have in mind is an interview he gave on Monday to CBS’s Scott Pelley that touched on his ever-morphing position on abortion rights. Unlike Herman Cain, who made absurd statements about his position on abortion during the primaries because he appeared to be genuinely unaware of the past 40 years in U.S. politics, Romney is not stupid. But he is banking on the hope that voters are.

Here’s my annotated version of the CBS interview:

Scott Pelley: “The platform, as written at this convention for the Republicans, does not allow for exceptions on abortion with regard to the health of the mother or rape or incest. Is there where you are?”

No, my position has been clear throughout … uh … this campaign.

You got that, ladies? Like three-quarters of Americans, I oppose that constitutional ban in our platform. Just don’t ask me in front of a bunch of donors. And as I keep telling you, my position on abortion has always been clear. Marvelously clear. Ha ha. Ha. 

I’m in favor of abortion being legal in the case of rape and incest, and the health and life of the mother.

Never you mind that I don’t actually support abortion when the health of the mother is at stake. Or that my running mate calls a health exception for abortion a “Mack Truck-sized loophole.” You’re supposed to stop listening after “I’m in favor of abortion being legal…” And don’t worry about it when my spokeswoman issues a clarifying statement saying that I support abortion only in cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is at stake. She’s probably crazy, too. 

But recognize—this is the decision that will be made by the Supreme Court.

I’m about to argue that abortion isn’t an issue voters should consider in the presidential contest because the president has nothing to do with it. You could argue that the president appoints members of the Supreme Court, but who says I would care about their views on abortion? Stop listening to all those social conservatives who back me and listen to what I’m telling you. Which is: don’t worry your pretty little head.

The Democrats try and make this a political issue every four years …

You’ve let yourself get all worked up by those Democrats again. Lord knows where they got the idea that abortion is a political issue. Now contraception, on the other hand…

… but this is a matter for the courts.

Let me repeat: presidents don’t have anything to do with abortion. Except for all of the extreme decisions Obama has made on the abortion front. Those are all bad. Like lifting the Mexico City gag rule. And appointing Sotomayor and Kagan to the Supreme Court. And Obamacare. Which actually provides a far less direct link between taxpayer funds and abortion than Romneycare does. If I’m elected, I won’t have anything to do with abortion. Sure, I may have to decide whether to sign or veto any abortion restrictions Congress passes. But those guys are totally reasonable.

It’s been settled for some time in the courts.

I know it seems like I contradicted that a few seconds ago when I said that this is an issue that will be decided by the Supreme Court. But that’s just because you’re not listening to me. And, yes, I said I’d like to see Roe v. Wade overturned, but technically, the issue is settled. Until the Court takes it up again. Why don’t you trust me?

To be fair, Romney is in a bit of a pickle. Given his record of running for the U.S. Senate and governor as a pro-choice politician, social conservatives certainly do not trust him on abortion policy. Romney has been spending his time reassuring them, hoping that his image as a Massachusetts moderate would be sufficient to convince undecided pro-choice women that they could be comfortable with him. He didn’t count on Todd Akin and others in the GOP base creeping out women. So now he has to make some effort at reassuring them.

But not too much effort. And that’s where the gaslighting comes in. Instead of taking the issue seriously and explaining where he stands, Romney asserts that abortion isn’t a relevant issue in the presidential race, misleads viewers about whether abortion rights are settled in law, and lies about his position. If his answers seem off, that’s because there’s something wrong with you.