By Daniel Rigney
Have you noticed that Mitt Romney frequently begins sentences with the phrase “I just happen to believe that … ,” or some variation thereof?
Compare the following three hypothetical sentences:
1. Carrots grow underground.
2. I believe that carrots grow underground.
3. I just happen to believe that carrots grow underground.
The first sentence is a direct and unambiguous declaration of alleged fact. It has an authoritative ring to it, even if the speaker’s assertion is mistaken. (“I don’t think; I know: Obama was born in Kenya.”)
The second sentence seems to say “This is my personal belief, but others may have theirs.” We hear a faint note of tentativeness in the speaker’s voice. The tone is softer, gentler, less absolute, more diplomatic.
The third sentence goes even further, implying that the belief in question occurred “by chance or without plan,”* as in “I just happen to have won the lottery” or “I just happen to have stepped into a fresh mound of dog custard.” It suggests that there is something accidental about the speaker’s belief, and something slightly apologetic in its expression.
Thus we find Romney on the campaign trail saying things like:
“Senator McCain continues to believe that [his vote against the Bush tax cuts] was the right vote to take, and I respect that that’s his view. I just happen to disagree with it.” (New Hampshire Republican primary debate, 1/6/2008, emphasis added)
“I just happen to think that for the long term for the country it’s very wise for people to be able to own their own insurance as opposed to have it purchased for them by their employer.” (Interview with The Washington Examiner, 12/7/2011.)
“I don’t have any comment on anything [that my PAC is] going to do or say. I just happen to think that this election is going to ultimately come down to a question about the direction of the country, and who is going to be able to lead the country at a critical time.” Iowa Town Meeting, reported in New York Times blog, “The Caucus,” 12/9/2011.
“I just happen to think I’ll get the delegates I need to become the nominee.” (Interview with Columbus Dispatch, 2/23/2012)”
“I happen to think that liquefied coal may be a source [of energy] for us if we can sequester the CO2….” (from a 2007 speech reported at thinkprogress.org, 3/26/2012)
The “president’s orientation is to raise taxes and I happen to think that will slow economic growth….” (ABC News, 4/17,2012)
Most recently, of course, Romney has confided to those gathered at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association (April 12, 2012) that “I happen to think that all moms are working moms.”
Romney is by no means the only politician to say that he “just happens” to think or believe this or that. But I can find no one in public life who begins sentences this way more often than he does.
You may suspect that I’m setting Romney up for ridicule by pointing up this habit of speech.
Actually, on one level, I do marvel that a self-identified conservative would convey (unconsciously perhaps) an undertone of tentativeness or uncertainty in his beliefs. It’s so rare to find a conservative who lacks certitude about anything.
Romney’s convictions are not set in concrete, as Santorum’s or Ron Paul’s are, and so he can adjust his thinking to meet the political opportunities of the moment. The man keeps an open mind. Indeed, no candidate in the Republican field has proven more willing to change his mind on any and every policy issue than Romney has.
It just happens that these changes in conviction have coincided with the seasons of his political career. In the current nominating season, his publicly-expressed beliefs happen to coincide with those of the G.O.P.’s right-wing base.
The day after he officially receives the Republican nomination, however, there’s no telling what Romney might suddenly happen to believe.
*Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second Edition