Mitt Romney came to the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC, on Saturday morning hoping to mollify his critics on the religious right. He tried his best, offering more specifics on the ways he would attack abortion rights and gay rights than his opponents had. And yet the conference organizers seemed to have it in for him. They scheduled Bryan Fischer, the extremist firebrand radio host and spokesman for the American Family Association, to speak immediately after Romney.
Fischer delivered the first real fire and brimstone of the weekend and his speech was essentially a plea for the 3,000 social conservative activists in attendance to vote against Romney. The theme of his address was what a president needs to be, and the answer was, in essence, an ardent Christian fundamentalist, not a Mormon or a moderate.
I profiled Fischer for Newsweek back in January, and he had harsh words for Romney when I bumped into him on Friday. Fischer told me he doesn’t trust Romney on social issues. “Romney was pro-abortion as recently as 2005,” Fischer noted. “It seems like he switched to being prolife for political convenience.”
Fischer also blames Romney for the fact that Massachusetts became the first state to recognize gay marriages because it happened on Romney’s watch. It was required by a state Supreme Court ruling, but Fischer thinks Romney could have waited for the state legislature to act instead of ordering state officials to grant marriage licenses to gay couples in contravention of what remained state law on the books.
“We have gay marriage in the United States because of Mitt Romney,” Fischer said. “It was executive activism.”
So I asked Fischer what would happen if Romney, who currently leads in the polls and fundraising, wins the nomination. “Romney would be John McCain,” Fischer replied. “Social conservatives would be unenthusiastic and that would affect turnout and make it harder to defeat Obama.”
If that’s true, Romney had a quite a challenge in front of him today. (Fischer also told me that last year he saw Romney address this gathering and “he didn’t move the crowd an inch.”) The conference, hosted by the Family Research Council, has featured speeches from every major Republican presidential candidate. Many focused on economic and foreign policy, dealing with social issues only in passing.
That’s normally Romney’s approach as well. He has complained in interviews that he was forced to spend too much time discussing culture-war issues in the last election. At one debate this summer, when asked about “don’t ask, don’t tell” reinstatement, he responded with the cowardly diversion, “We should be talking about the economy.” Romney admitted that he does, in fact, oppose letting gays serve openly in the armed forces. But with his eye on New Hampshire’s social moderates and the general election, he generally focuses his pitch heavily on economics.
Romney was introduced by conservative legal activist Jay Sekulow, who is supporting him. While Sekulow hit the standard notes about supporting Israel and balancing the budget, he emphasized the fact that the next president could appoint Supreme Court justices who prove decisive in cases on divisive social issues. He mentioned partial birth abortion, but gave even more attention to the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance, a comically stupid obsession that has come up repeatedly at this conference.