George Romney was no moderate by today’s standards. He was a staunch fiscal conservative who explicitly denied that he was some kind of a moderate. While he famously embraced the civil rights movement and supported the occasional fiscally conservative Democrat like Paul Tsongas, George Romney took positions on social issues that would make him a rock-solid conservative today.
Yes, he did some things that would trouble today’s conservatives, but so did Ronald Reagan. Romney ran against Barry Goldwater for the Republican nomination in 1964 and didn’t endorse him during the general election campaign. Romney was Nixon’s HUD secretary, which means that he helped grow the federal bureaucracy. That experience, though, made him even more fiscally conservative because of the waste he saw in trying to solve problems with government money. Even before he became Michigan’s governor, he led the rewriting of the state’s constitution to mandate a balanced budget. Though Michigan’s economy has suffered for over a decade, the state government in Lansing never got nearly as underwater as states like California and New York are today.
Just as the press now portrays Mitt as embracing extremely conservative political positions, so too the GOP of the early 1960s now receives an offensive caricature. It’s effective in the current presidential campaign to portray George Romney as more “moderate” and less conservative than he really was so his son Mitt can be cast as the “etch-a-sketch” candidate pandering to his party’s right wing. Part of that involves rewriting history to darken the GOP with a stain of racism and extremism.