As Mitt Romney enters the Republican presidential race this week, there will be plenty of attention on his shifting political views. But Romney's changing positions are not just the tragicomic tale of a man so desperate for the presidency he'll say anything to get there: they're also a valuable measure of what it takes to make it in the modern GOP.
Romney's many breathtaking U-turns -- on universal health care, on gay rights, on abortion rights -- have been extensively documented and parsed, and have become a reliable punchline. The former governor's willingness to adopt the position that he thinks will get him the most votes in whatever election he happens to be running in does speak to his own character. But Romney's ease at shifting also makes him a perfect weathervane for measuring the audiences he is trying to appeal to. And the speed with which Romney has been spinning to the right is an alarming sign of the political winds within the Republican Party.
This weekend, Romney will be making an important appearance among a group that has historically mistrusted him: the Religious Right. Speaking at the annual conference of Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, Romney can be expected to once again disavow his previously convenient reasonable positions on abortion rights and gay equality. But he is also likely to go a step farther.
At a similar event in 2007, as he tried to shake off his image as a socially moderate Massachusetts Republican in preparation for his first presidential run, Romney spoke at the Values Voter Summit hosted by a coalition of right-wing social issues groups. In his speech, he rattled off Religious Right catchphrases, speaking of the United States' "Judeo-Christian heritage," the "breakdown of the family," and making "out-of-wedlock birth out of fashion again" and passing an anti-gay marriage amendment to "protect marriage from liberal, unelected judges." He promised a federal "marriage amendment," funding for vouchers for religious schools and across-the-board anti-choice policies. By earlier that year, he had impressed Ann Coulter enough that she endorsed him in a speech made famous by her use of an anti-gay slur.
At last year's Values Voter Summit, having done full penance to the Religious Right for his previous statements in favor of gay rights and choice, Romney focused his speech on right-wing economic policies, including an odd tribute comparing Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton to the Founding Fathers. But the company he kept revealed the friends he was hoping to make. The event was sponsored in part by the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, two groups who were soon to be named "hate groups" by the SPLC for their long histories of false anti-gay rhetoric. Romney's fellow speakers included Religious Right stalwarts Phyllis Schlafly, Tony Perkins, Planned Parenthood scam artist Lila Rose, and the AFA's Bryan Fischer, who has gained infamy with his vicious rhetoric about gays and lesbians, Muslims, African Americans and progressives. I wrote a letter to Romney warning him about associating himself with Fischer -- he didn't respond.
The Religious Right leaders that Romney is eager to curry favor with aren't just hostile to gays, Muslims and the social safety net -- many have expressed concern or even outright hostility to Romney's own Mormon faith. Fischer recently confronted Romney's faith, declaring that there is "a direct contradiction between Mormon theology and the teaching of Jesus Christ." A writer for a leading Religious Right publication declared, "If Mitt Romney believes what the Mormon Church teaches about the world and how it operates, then he is unfit to serve." As Romney angles himself into an increasingly extreme GOP, he will have to make nice to those who insult not only his past politics but his core religious beliefs.
At the Faith and Freedom Conference this weekend, Romney will have a similar opportunity to reinforce his social conservative bona fides while tying in his newly adamant anti-gay and anti-choice positions with the Tea Party's love of pro-corporate anti-tax talk. Ralph Reed, the resurgent mastermind behind the Christian Coalition, will perhaps be the perfect ally in his effort to paint himself as a true Tea Party candidate who wants small government for corporations and big government for individuals. Reed was, after all, partly responsible for bringing the passion of American evangelicals to the Republican anti-regulation agenda and schmoozes equally comfortably with Pat Robertson and Jack Abramoff. He is the perfect power-broker for an age when GOP politicians are supposed to oppose universal health care while supporting IRS involvement in abortions - the niche that Romney is trying to carefully fit himself into.
Romney will try to take advantage of the GOP base's newfound love of tax breaks for the rich, while continuing to pretend that he never supported choice and gay rights and reasonable environmental and health policies. If he can get away with it, he'll be the perfect candidate for today's ultraconservative GOP. But either way, he's bound to become a powerful symbol of just how far to the Right you have to go to make it in today's Republican Party.
Follow Michael Keegan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peoplefor