At the last GOP presidential debate, Americans of all political persuasions were shocked when the audience loudly booed Stephen Hill, an openly gay soldier who sent in a video question from Iraq about the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. We were even more shocked when it dawned on us that not a single candidate on stage was going to step up to defend Hill or even thank him for his service to the country. Rick Santorum, the only candidate to respond to Hill's question, accused him of receiving "special privileges" for "sexual activity" and called the new policy that allows him to serve openly "tragic." None of his fellow candidates contradicted him.
Similar scenes unfolded in earlier debates, when crowds cheered Texas' record breaking number of executions and applauded the idea of an uninsured man dying of a treatable illness.
These reactions hopefully say little about the average GOP voter -- most decent people of any party recoil at the idea of insulting an active servicemember or of a sick neighbor dying -- but the candidates' silence spoke volumes. Today's Republican presidential candidates, even the supposed moderates, live in fear of crossing a small base that has developed an alternate view of reality and a dangerously skewed notion of liberty. Chief among these is Mitt Romney, who started his career as an East Coast moderate but now knows that extremists are the only thing that can keep him from the GOP nomination. The former moderate is now, paradoxically, the most beholden to the extremist fringe.
Romney is still trying to have it both ways -- to retain what little is left of his "moderate" persona while cheerfully appeasing the most extreme elements of the corporate and religious Right. He is banking on being able to get through the primary with both of his personas intact. Unfortunately for him, it's not working.
In fact, Romney's eagerness to appease has placed him solidly in the far-right -- and increasingly unpopular --Tea Party camp of the GOP.
Romney wears his pro-corporate politics with the pride of a Koch brother. He told an audience in Iowa recently that "corporations are people" -- a bold statement, even for a multi-millionaire who made his fortune partly on the profits from outsourcing American jobs. And he hasn't backed down from his claim -- in fact, he keeps repeating it.
Romney may think that corporations are people, but he seems to think that they deserve more care and concern from the government than working, tax-paying, family-feeding citizens. His economic plan calls for the vast deregulation of financial markets, whose lack of constraints in the Bush era led to the catastrophic economic collapse from which we're still digging our way out. In contrast with his policies as governor of Massachusetts, where he helped close a budget gap by eliminating $110 million in corporate tax loopholes, Romney has now signed a pledge rejecting all efforts to raise revenues by making the wealthiest pay their fair share in income tax or closing loopholes that help companies ship jobs overseas. Instead, he has called for reducing corporate income tax, which is already so low and riddled with loopholes that some mammoth companies didn't pay any last year. When a debate moderator asked the GOP candidates if they would accept a budget compromise that included $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue increases, Romney joined all the others in saying he would reject it.
It's perhaps not unexpected that Romney has joined the Tea Party herd on fiscal policy -- after all, he's a wealthy man himself and stands to lose a little if Bush's tax breaks for the wealthy and other hand-outs to the most fortunate are rescinded. But he has also, in more of a stretch, wholeheartedly embraced the social extremism of the Religious Right.
Romney's still distrusted by many on the Religious Right -- he was for abortion rights before he was against them, once promised to establish "full equality for American gay and lesbian citizens" and distributed pink fliers at a gay pride parade, and, of course is a Mormon. But that hasn't kept him from kowtowing to the Religious Right leaders who still hold enormous sway in the Republican party.
In the most recent illustration yet of Romney's quiet acceptance of the Radical Right, he is scheduled to speak at next week's far-right Values Voter Summit, a Washington get-together sponsored by designated hate groups the American Family Association and the Family Research Council. At the event, Romney will take the stage immediately after AFA spokesman Bryan Fischer, a man whose record of outspoken bigotry is so shocking he would be an anathema to any reasonable political movement. Fischer wants to deport American Muslims, says gays are responsible for the Holocaust and claims Native Americans are "morally disqualified" from controlling land. He also claims that non-Christian religions don't have First Amendment rights - among the faiths he has singled out as exceptions to the free exercise clause is Romney's own Mormonism. I have called on Romney to distance himself from Fischer's bigotry before handing him the microphone on Saturday... but don't hold your breath.
Participants at the Values Voter Summit rarely check their less savory values at the door. At last year's event, which Romney also attended, FRC president Tony Perkins managed to simultaneously insult both gay troops and several allied nations by insisting that nations that allow gay people to serve openly in the military "participate in parades, they don't fight wars to keep the nation and the world free." Neither Romney nor any of the other GOP luminaries present spoke up in response.
At the Values Voter Summit, as in the GOP debates, Mitt Romney will doubtless attempt to slide under the radar, never openly condoning extremism, but never contradicting it either. As he emerges as the GOP frontrunner, it needs to be asked: is Mitt Romney more moderate than his fellow candidates, or is he just better at strategically keeping his extremism quiet?