Monday, May 16, 2011

Political Correctness and Moral Authenticity

I’ve taken my share of wicked pleasure in Mitt Romney’s presidential ambitions. Last presidential election cycle, it was watching him explain away his pro-choice record on abortion. When he’d run unsuccessfully for the Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney was obliged to rebut the charge that his Mormonism inclined him to a social conservatism that was out of step with his prospective constituents. To that end, he not only proclaimed his commitment to abortion rights, but upped the ante by declaring that he’d be a more reliable custodian of them than Kennedy. When Romney ran successfully in the Massachusetts gubernatorial election of 2002, he reaffirmed that commitment in no uncertain terms.

That left Romney trying to convince the Republican base in the 2008 election cycle that he’d be a reliable protector of unborn life because he’d had a sudden epiphany about its sanctity. You could only marvel at his timing. Romney's epiphany came at exactly the moment when he no longer needed the political capital associated with being pro-choice in Massachusetts politics, and just in time to court the votes of pro-life conservatives in upcoming Republican presidential primaries. He had to know that this was a tough sell for social conservatives, but he was betting that the Republican base would prefer a candidate who was politically correct by their lights but morally inauthentic to one who was steadfast but incorrect.

Before you dismiss Romney’s strategy out of hand, remember that in the 2008 election cycle Rudy Giuliani took the other side of substantially the same bet. He knew as well as Romney that opposition to legalized abortion was the official position of the conservative movement, and he wasn’t about to try changing any conservative minds on that score. Yet rather than recant his longstanding views on abortion, Giuliani petitioned the social conservative church for an open-ended ideological indulgence in light of his conservatism on economic and national security issues. Here was his pitch to social conservatives at a “Values Voters Summit” in October 2007:
“I’m not going to pretend to you that I can be all things to all people. I’m just not like that. I can’t do that. And you know that we have some areas of disagreement, but I believe we have many, many more areas of agreement and the one thing you can count on with me is I’ll always be honest with you. . . . Isn’t it better that I tell you what I really believe instead of pretending to change all of my positions to fit the prevailing wind? I believe trust is more important than 100% agreement.”
Romney’s blend of conservative political correctness and moral inauthenticity didn’t take him very far in the 2008 Republican primaries. In delegates won, he came in third behind McCain and Huckabee.  But despite being “America's Mayor” and spending an awful lot of money, Giuliani’s blend of political incorrectness and moral authenticity enabled him to win exactly one Republican delegate. So maybe Romney laid down the better bet after all.

If you're willing to be mean about it, you can’t help but enjoy the irony that, in this election cycle, Romney has been obliged to take Giuliani’s side of the political correctness/moral authenticity bet. Apparently having decided that he has run out of politically marketable epiphanies, Romney is standing by RomneyCare in general, and the individual mandate it shares with ObamaCare in particular. Granted, as Ezra Klein reminds us, Romney can at least say that he's being more steadfast than his conservative critics this time by upholding what was the thinking conservative’s approach to health care reform just a few years ago. But the reception he’s gotten from conservatives so far (see, e.g., Mark Steyn’s) suggests that Romney has figured out a way to marry his pre-existing reputation for inauthenticity to Giuliani’s reputation for incorrectness.


Dave said...

Romney not only comes off as an empty suit, but he also appears to be politically tone-deaf. He's trying to play the political winds with a broken weathervane. I just can't see his candidacy lasting long.

In fact, the chief rationale for Romney's frontrunner status seems to be his frontrunner status itself. That's a house of cards waiting to collapse.

Anonymous said...

Republicans are doomed if Romney is the best bet. I agree with Dave - his collapse is imminent. Daniels and Pawlenty better step up quick. With Huckabee out (and now Trump is out!!!!!), time is short to get a campaign going. Obama may well win, not because his presidency has been so great or even so-so, but because he has no serious contender.