The EFM Feature

After recovering (as much as one can recover) from my Iraq experience and reconnecting with Nancy and the kids, I’ve started to think more and more about the 2008 election — what went wrong and what went right. I’ll be writing about this in a continuing series (and would love reader feedback) in part to help us learn more about our own party and movement and in part to learn lessons that may apply in 2012.
Here is my first question: Putting aside (for the moment) Mitt’s religious beliefs, what else could have accounted for the ferocity of some of his social conservative opposition? A person can’t spend five minutes patrolling the outer edges of the social conservative internet world without finding multiple examples of pure vitriol (no one does that better than Governor Huckabee’s supporters).
While there’s no single, simple explanation, part of the problem was simply a culture clash. For a host of reasons, the conservative movement has defined a particular kind of personal style and history as the archetype for the “true” social conservative. Mitt Romney did not have that style, nor did he have that history.
And what is that archetype? Let’s look at some of the recent political heroes (and heroines) of the social conservative movement: George Bush (for about seven years), Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and (almost) Fred Thompson. What do they have in common? Several superficial things — down-home rhetoric, deep regional accents, an obvious distaste for elite culture, a very plain personal style — and a deeper feeling that their social conservatism was their primary defining characteristic, and that primary defining characteristic could overcome even actions inconsistent with that identity.
(This is why Thompson supporters responded with such ferocity when we noted his documented pro-choice past — it was as if we were tearing at the very foundations of their support for him, tearing at their very concept of who he was).
But what about Mitt? He is wealthy. He comes from the Northeast. He comes from the business world. He is a gifted communicator but doesn’t have the same down-home common touch as Palin, Bush, Huckabee, etc. Finally — and importantly — his primary defining characteristic is Mitt Romney, businessman and economic reformer, not Mitt Romney, culture warror. So people sometimes felt like he was “selling” his social conservatism rather than expressing his own beliefs from his heart.
I’m not sure that Mitt will ever be seen by some activists as the archetypical Republican that they crave, and they may never love him (or even like him). But let’s be very clear . . . He can win without their love.
What a difference two years makes. In 2007, we Republicans were pointing the economy as one of the unheralded success stories of the Bush administration, so an economic reformer like Mitt was not going to be able to run on his strength. And if he did, the Republican electorate would have actively resisted his message. But what about now? How much do we need someone whose record of economic success and expertise (applying conservative principles) is unmatched? How much better is it that he’s also a social conservative?
As much as we social conservatives wish that American thought was dominated by cultural concerns (but if it was, would we even be in a cultural crisis?), American thought is right now dominated by the most basic economic issues. But a time like this is extraordinarily dangerous culturally. Much damage can be done while even the attention of the religious community is diverted to their jobs, their life’s savings, and their very hope of providing their children with a better life.
We don’t know what the world will look like in 2011 and 2012, but if it looks anything like it does now, then the right man may very well find the right time to run.


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