For months now, we have been told in numerous ways that Mitt Romney is going to have to “tack back to the center” once he gets the Republican nomination nailed down.
In this view, Romney is seen as having had to convince conservative primary voters that he was one of them. But now that all his opponents have choked in his dust (the last one, Rep. Ron Paul, stopped spending money on future primaries this week), he is free, as the GOP’s “presumptive nominee,” to reach out to independents and moderates.
They presumably make up the largest group of voters as yet undecided about their choice in November. So, by tucking his conservative supporters firmly in his pocket and modifying his stands, or at least shifting his campaign’s emphasis, to topics that polls show people are most worried about (primarily the economy), Romney can begin his real run for the roses.
Trouble is, nobody seems to have told the candidate.
While President Obama was giving the graduation address at one of the country’s most liberal schools, New York City’s Barnard College, Romney — a Mormon — headed south to Lynchburg, Va., to speak at one of the nation’s most conservative schools, Liberty University, founded by the late evangelical leader, Dr. Jerry Falwell.
There, he made a number of comments in support of socially conservative positions, including a staunch defense of marriage as being limited to one man and one woman, which got him a standing ovation from his audience.
He also commended their faith: “You know what you believe. You know who you are. And you know Whom you will serve. Not all colleges instill that kind of confidence, but it will be among the most prized qualities from your education here. Moral certainty, clear standards, and a commitment to spiritual ideals will set you apart in a world that searches for meaning.”
But he also warned them that their beliefs were under siege in a world that increasingly seeks its meaning in ways that reject transcendent morality:
“That said, your values will not always be the object of public admiration. In fact, the more you live by your beliefs, the more you will endure the censure of the world. Christianity is not the faith of the complacent, the comfortable or of the timid. It demands and creates heroic souls like Wesley, Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, John Paul II and Billy Graham. Each showed, in their own way, the relentless and powerful influence of the message of Jesus Christ. May that be your guide.”
And he obliquely but clearly indicated he had his own view on whether Mormonism was identical with traditional Christianity: It isn’t.
“People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”
That made it clear that he believes there is more to life than economics. As he noted, “For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2 percent. But, if those things are absent, 76 percent will be poor. Culture matters.”
Culture matters, all right, and with marriage rates declining in the ranks of the middle and lower classes and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketing among those groups, Romney’s words stand as a strong rebuke to those who think that every important issue in our common life can be denominated in dollars.
As Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, now the GOP candidate for governor there, said recently, “To those who say that marriage is not relevant to our budget crisis, I say that you would not be able to print enough money in a thousand years to pay for the government that you would need if the family continues to collapse.”
That’s not to say the economy isn’t important — it is, and hugely so. But prosperity by itself, in the ruins of a culture that has abandoned the things that offer deeper meaning to life, will find the “pursuit of happiness” to be circumscribed by harsh limits that cannot be overcome by writing a check.
And now that the campaign has begun in earnest, polls are finally beginning to be worth watching. Three surveys this week indicate Romney’s pro-family stance isn’t hurting him at all.
In a New York Times/CBS News poll, Romney led Obama both in overall favorability and among women. It looks like the Democrats’ “war on women” slur hasn’t been all that persuasive, while the New York Times’ 5,000-word expose of a teenage hair-cutting prank (especially balanced against Obama’s youthful confessions of cocaine use) also hasn’t gained much traction.
Romney’s 46-43 overall gap (and his 46-44 rating for women) were within the margin of error, meaning the candidates are essentially tied — but that an incumbent president is tied at this stage of the campaign with an opponent who hasn’t even begun to run national ads is not a good sign for the incumbent.
It is also true that 63 percent of respondents said the economy was their most important issue, but that still leaves a third of voters looking in other directions. However, for those voters, a Rasmussen poll released Tuesday, Romney led Obama in all five areas regularly surveyed by the organization, including leading 51-39 on overall economic outlook.
He also led the president 48-38 on taxes; 45-40 on health care; 43-40 on energy policy; and 44-42 on national defense.
And the Real Clear Politics poll average, which again shows the president’s job approval rating a half point below his approval, has a “right-track/wrong-track” split for the nation of 33.3 to 59.3 — a 26-point negative difference.
However, it’s Gallup that had the most interesting results this week: One poll showed that, even though views of the candidates are essentially tied here as well, voters by a 20-point margin think Obama will win in November.
But in a USA Today/Gallup poll released the same day, 55 percent of registered voters say the economy would get better over the next four years if Romney were elected, while Obama got only 46 percent.
“And,” the poll reported, “for the first time in the campaign cycle, Republicans seem to be taking the advantage in upcoming congressional elections. By 55-44 percent, those questioned said they were more likely to vote for the GOP candidate” for Congress (even though Congress’ overall rating remains mired at 14 percent).
People base their opinions about whom they think will win on their judgments about others’ preferences, but if those views aren’t realistic, then they can’t count for much. Taking all the other responses into account, Romney has a lot to be cheerful about — at least in this news cycle.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.