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Stop if you’ve heard this one before: Mitt Romney has reversed his stance on a core conservative issue. Today’s position switch? Romney now supports a flat tax, a policy that he has spent almost a decade criticizing.

The flat tax, which has become a centerpiece of Herman Cain and Rick Perry’s platforms, is a very popular policy among the hardcore conservatives that Mitt Romney needs to assuage to win the nomination. The emergence of Cain, the brief bout of enthusiasm for Michele Bachmann, and the looming Perry threat means that it makes sense for Romney — who once criticized Steve Forbes’ flat tax plan as a “tax cut for fat cats” — to reverse course and tack hard to the right.

“I love a flat tax,” Romney said in August.

Romney’s campaign is now trying to dispute the notion that Romney’s new-found respect for the flat tax is the most recent example of a flip-flop by the former Massachusetts governor. The New York Times reports:

Romney aides dispute the criticism and say his objection to the Forbes plan was specific: that it would raise taxes on the middle class. Gail Gitcho, a Romney spokeswoman, said there was “no inconsistency” in his position. She said he could support a flat tax that did not raise taxes.

But when asked about the many flat-tax plans that have been floated in the last two decades, Romney aides said they could not recall any that might pass muster with Mr. Romney’s requirements. Nor would they venture the outlines of a new plan that might meet his test. They also do not dispute the notion that a flat tax could never generate the same amount of tax revenue while also maintaining the same relative burdens on the wealthy and the middle class.

The controversy is just the latest example of a broader trend for Romney. During his business career, Romney achieved wild success by making decisions based on meticulous study of the available data. As a recent New York Magazine profile points out, Romney’s decision-making process has always been noted for “the clinical separation of decision-making from ideology,” “the detachment of those decisions from moral consequence,” and for being “buried in objectivity, in data, in process.”

Romney’s political career has followed the same trend, except the data on which he now relies is political in nature. His position changes on abortion rights, gay marriage, the auto industry bailout, the 2009 Recovery Act, and now the flat tax underscore his slavish devotion to “data-driven” politics. Romney will methodically support just about anything that he thinks will help his poll numbers rise.

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