As some readers well know and others probably have figured out, I maintain an abiding interest in the 1968 presidential race. I believe it was a huge turning point, not just in American politics but in American history: you had the final crackup of the Democratic coalition (and nearly the same on the Republican side; if either Rockefeller or Reagan had seized the nomination from Nixon at the Miami convention, you wouldn't have had Chicago-style riots in the streets, but you might have seen a third-party emergence), the last of the traumatic trio of assassinations that defined the Sixties for many (which also ensured the Democratic crackup; RFK might have held things together for one more cycle), and the beginning of the long national disenchantment with politics that so deepened in the early 1970s and arguably bottomed out with Bush v. Gore 32 years later.
Nearly forgotten in all of that year's drama was a remarkable act of political self-destruction by a man whom many felt, in 1967, had as good a chance to win the '68 election as anybody: Republican Governor George Romney of Michigan. But with one remarkably ill-chosen statement during the Summer of Love, Romney flushed his own hopes down the drain:
In a taped interview with Lou Gordon of WKBD-TV in Detroit, Romney stated, "When I came back from Viet Nam [in November 1965], I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." He then shifted to opposing the war: "I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia," he declared. Decrying the "tragic" conflict, he urged "a sound peace in South Vietnam at an early time." Thus Romney disavowed the war and reversed himself from his earlier stated belief that the war was "morally right and necessary." The connotations of brainwashing following the experiences of the American prisoners of war (highlighted by the film The Manchurian Candidate) made Romney's comments devastating to his status as the GOP front-runner. Republican Congressman Robert Stafford of Vermont sounded a common concern: "If you're running for the presidency," he asserted, "you are supposed to have too much on the ball to be brainwashed." (Johns 2000) At the National Convention Romney finished a weak 6th with only 50 votes on the first ballot (44 of Michigan's 48 plus 6 from Utah).
Fast-forward forty years, and another Romney with presidential ambitions could be on the verge of repeating his father's mistake. Mitt Romney, son of the Michigan governor and himself the outgoing governor of Massachusetts after two terms in office, is trying to position himself as a social conservative--the thing to be, of course, in Republican presidential politics today.
There's just one problem: during his political career in Massachusetts, he expressed sentiments rather more tolerant than those befitting a consistently hate-addled True Believer. During his competitive but ultimately unsuccessful 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy, for instance, Romney pledged in a letter to the Log Cabin Club of Massachusetts that he would be a stronger advocate for gay equality than Kennedy, and praised then-President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy as “the first in a number of steps that will ultimately lead to gays’ and lesbians’ being able to serve openly and honestly in our nation’s military.”
And now he's being called on it:
[T]he breadth of the letter’s language and the specificity of many of the pledges stunned conservative leaders. Many of them had turned to Mr. Romney as a conservative alternative to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, whose position on issues like abortion had been considered suspect.
“This is quite disturbing,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who had praised Mr. Romney as a champion of traditional values at the group’s conference in late September. “This type of information is going to create a lot of problems for Governor Romney. He is going to have a hard time overcoming this.”
Paul Weyrich, a founder of the modern conservative movement, said: “Unless he comes out with an abject repudiation of this, I think it makes him out to be a hypocrite. And if he totally repudiates this, you have to ask, on what grounds?”
The letter, and Mr. Romney’s effort to reconcile it with the way he had presented himself on the campaign trail, reflects what has been one of the central challenges facing him in his campaign: how to move from winning an election in one of the most liberal states in the union to becoming the presidential candidate of a party whose nominating process is dominated by social conservatives.
Romney is trying to square that circle by stressing his opposition to gay marriage, implicitly arguing that the other stuff--anti-discrimination measures, gays serving in the military--is less important. For a general-election race, this probably serves him well: gay marriage remains short of majority support (though that won't be the case in as few as 10 years, and almost certainly no more than 30), but the public doesn't support explicit discrimination against gays. But that's not going to do in a contest where the electorate is largely and unapologetically homophobic: to paraphrase another Republican presidential hopeful of the 1960s, when it comes to hating on gays, people like Perkins, Weyrich, and Radical Cleric James Dobson see moderation as no virtue and extremism as no vice.
(This problem, plus others having to do with his temperament and scandalous past, is also going to screw Rudy Giuliani, who richly deserves it. I'm just sorry that it could well be Rudy's most honorable political virtue--his steadfast support of gay rights--that's going to do him in, rather than his myriad personal/political vices.)
The great hope of homophobic "social conservatives," Rick Santorum, obviously won't be making the race after getting his ass handed to him in a Senate re-election race last month. But there's still Sam Brownshirt--I mean, Brownback--who's got the bigotry bona fides right-wing religious leaders crave: just a couple weeks ago, Brownback publicly considered blocking a Bush judicial nominee for her great sin of appearing at a "commitment ceremony" honoring the relationship of two women. To beat that, maybe Romney can burn the women in effigy--and then, of course, claim he was "brainwashed" by all those years amongs the god-hating liberals of Massachusetts.