Tampa—The Republican National Convention has presented the Romney campaign with a conundrum: how to placate the religious right without alienating independents. The compromise has been giving social conservatives a handful of speeches that are in prime time for the delegates and Fox News viewers, but safely out of the 10 pm EST hour for the broadcast networks. On Tuesday night, the token social conservative slot was given to Rick Santorum. On Wednesday, it was Mike Huckabee.
But Christianists are experts at outside organizing. They played nicely with the Romney campaign in public, but they were sure to demand their pound of flesh. For weeks leading up to the RNC, the Family Research Council (FRC) blasted emails to their members informing them of the high stakes in the platform negotiations. Back in June they sent an e-mail titled “Protecting Life & Marriage—from the Republicans,” in which they asked for donations to send a larger lobbying team to the Platform Committee meetings last week. They warned that many leading Republicans were going wobbly on gay marriage. More recently, though, FRC President Tony Perkins breathed a sigh of relief over the fact that allies such as Governor Bob McDonnell (R-VA) and Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) were overseeing the process. And, sure enough, the platform has planks opposing marriage equality and abortion rights.
Once the actual festivities started, social conservatives kept the pressure on. On Tuesday, the FRC honored Santorum, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) and Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX) for their leadership in opposing abortion rights. It cannot possibly be a coincidence that they chose to recognize three of Romney’s primary opponents, one of whom left the Senate six years ago. One interpretation would be that FRC is thanking them for pushing social issues into the campaign. Another interpretation, not mutually exclusive, is that they are implicitly drawing a contrast with Romney.
Santorum is trying to set himself up as the leader of the middle-class social conservative wing of the GOP, in opposition to Romney’s country club set. He has organized a group, called Patriot Voices, that is focused on mobilizing his supporters and like-minded voters in the Rust Belt swing states where Santorum gave Romney a tight race in the primaries.
On Wednesday afternoon Patriot Voices held a rally for a few hundred supporters. Leaders of the major social conservative organizations all came to speak and show their support. It was apparent that if Romney loses and Santorum runs again in 2016, he would receive organized social conservative support from the get-go.
At Santorum’s event, away from the official RNC podium, the religious right let loose. Gary Bauer, president of American Values, hosted. Bauer referenced the ludicrous, Islamophobic wingnut theory that Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide Huma Abedin is a Muslim Brotherhood operative. Bauer’s theme was getting America to “come back” to its principles such as, “when American foreign policy promoted American values and interests, instead of the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood.” And, of course, Bauer invoked, “When the President knew the capital of Israel was Jerusalem.” Bauer went beyond merely opposing gay marriage to also inveigh against gay adoption. “It’s not bigotry to believe marriage is between a man and a woman, and it’s not discrimination to know a child needs a mother and a father.”
Even though he is known for his fiscal conservatism, Paul Ryan is clearly more popular than Romney among social conservatives. Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, mentioned Ryan before Romney. “Are you as excited about Paul Ryan being on this ticket as I am?” He asked to big cheers. “Ryan is a full spectrum conservative: pro-marriage, pro-life, pro-family,” Reed assured the crowd, although it seemed unnecessary. “It says a lot about Mitt Romney that he had the guts and intestinal fortitude to pick Paul Ryan,” said Reed, damning Romney—as conservatives often do—with the faint praise of being only as good as his vice-presidential pick.
Reed also addressed head on the reservations his constituency may have about Romney. “Go back and read Romney’s commencement address at Liberty University,” said Reed. “He’s come our way in his campaigns over the years.” Reed also claimed to have been baited to say something anti-Mormon by a reporter, as an excuse to explain why Romney’s faith is not a problem. “I’m not looking for someone who shares my faith, I’m looking for someone who shares my values,” said Reed to tepid applause. Later, he noted that Romney “is a church man.” (Shouldn’t that be irrelevant, according to Reed’s aforementioned concerns?) It’s worth noting that Reed felt the crowd might have enough doubts about whether a Mormon can be president that he had to make the case at all.
On behalf of the Romney campaign, Mitt’s son Matt Romney appeared and said nothing remotely interesting.
In a recurring theme of the RNC, Bauer attempted to disprove the existence of the Republican War on Women with patronizing tokenism. “We’ve got more articulate women who know the issues than the other guys,” asserted Bauer.
Ted Cruz, the Republican Senate candidate in Texas, previewed a religious right effort to drive a wedge among Catholic Democrats. “The Democrats used to be proud of having nominated two Catholics for president,” said Cruz. “What would an Al Smith or Jack Kennedy think of a Democratic president who tells the Catholic Church, ‘change your beliefs of we’ll shut you down?’” Considering that Jack Kennedy’s brother Ted was a major supporter of the Affordable Care Act, to which Cruz is referring, it’s probably safe to say he would not mind.
Perkins, as he always does, argued that government can not be shrunk without a stronger family unit.
The room was filled with Santorum’s former primary supporters, and the event was, to some extent, a swan song for his campaign. When he was introduced the audience stood and cheered, and then had to stand awkwardly for several minutes as a video lionizing Santorum played before he came out.
Santorum referred back to his speech on Tuesday, in which he heavily emphasized abortion and odiously suggested that Democrats do not care for the disabled because they would allow parents to abort a future baby with a disability. After talking about his love for his developmentally disabled daughter, Bella, Santorum had said, “I thank God that America still has one party that reaches out their hands in love to lift up all of God’s children—born and unborn—and says that each of us has dignity and all of us have the right to live the American Dream.” The irony is that disability rights advocates are unified in their support for the Affordable Care Act, which Santorum would repeal. Santorum’s compassion for the disabled does not extend to making sure they can obtain healthcare. (Santorum also opposes funding the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, which protects disabled children from discrimination.)
“When I said ‘born and unborn’ last night, 51 percent of the people didn’t stand up, 95 percent of them stood up,” Santorum boasted. “We are the pro-life party. There is no division. There is no dissension.” Santorum also bragged about having helped lead opposition to ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. More than 120 countries and the entire European Union have ratified it, and it enjoys bipartisan support in the US Senate. The purpose is to assure protection from discrimination for people with disabilities in education, employment and voting. Disability rights advocates support it. But religious extremists such as Santorum worry that it could be bad for parents who home school their children. And so, thanks to Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), it has not been approved by the US Senate.
Santorum devoted less than a sentence to the importance of excluding gays and lesbians from the institution of marriage, but Huckabee gave it more attention. He also, like Reed, took up responsibility on selling Mormon Mitt to the Evangelicals. “Let me clear the air about whether guys like me would only support an evangelical,” said Huckabee. “Of the four people on the two tickets, the only self-professed evangelical is Barack Obama, and he supports changing the definition of marriage, believes that human life is disposable and expendable at any time in the womb or even beyond the womb, and tells people of faith that they must bow their knees to the god of government and violate their faith and conscience in order to comply with what he calls healthcare… I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than I do about where he takes this country.”
Given Huckabee’s charisma and popularity among conservatives, the reaction on the floor to his speech was surprisingly subdued. That’s in keeping with the official GOP lack of interest in Huckabee’s trademark social issues. The Ron Paul supporters were especially stone-faced.
I asked some delegates from Texas, one of whom volunteered that he wanted Huckabee to be Romney’s running mate and another who offered that she supported him for president four years ago, whether this bothered them. It does not because they agreed that economic issues are more important in this cycle. But, as Butch Davis, the Texas state GOP parliamentarian said, “social issues will always be there. No one is backing off of that.”