The Christian right has been peculiarly inept this campaign. There’s little for them to like about the Republican front-runner, Mitt Romney.
In Massachusetts, he governed as a Northeast moderate. DNA tests reveal he’s the father of the evil spawn Obamacare. Although he now claims to support “personhood” amendments decreeing that life begins at conception, the authenticity of his anti-abortion fervor is suspect. And he’s a Mormon.
Yet Christian conservative leaders passed up the opportunity to rally behind a Romney alternative before the Iowa caucuses, where surely a little divine intervention could have provided former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania with the two fistfuls of votes he needed to defeat Romney.
By standing down, Christian conservatives allowed Romney to win. After another win the next week in New Hampshire, polls showed he arrived in South Carolina with a lead. Now that former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has dropped out, and everyone else is staying in, Romney looks like he’ll triumph once again over a fractured field. South Carolina, which has voted for the eventual Republican nominee in every election since 1980, is the last firewall. If Christian conservatives don’t stop Romney there, he’s off to collect the prize at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
Eat, Pray, Lurch
Yet politics doesn’t preclude second chances. So last weekend, luminaries of the religious right gathered outside Houston to eat, pray and lurch their way to a collective endorsement. Emissaries arrived from every campaign, save the now defunct Huntsman ranks, which never played the social conservative game. Over barbecue and delegate counts, the group tabled its divisions -- or tried to. It took three ballots before they finally gave a nod, if not a collective hug, to Santorum.
The group’s spokesman, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called Santorum “reliable” with a “record of stability.” The tepid endorsement was not accompanied by a promise of support; it was left to each attendee to determine how and whether Santorum would be assisted. Newt Gingrich’s supporters wasted no time undercutting the entire project.
Watching Monday night’s Republican debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, you could understand the dilemma facing Christian conservatives -- and why 58 percent of Republicans polled this month by CBS News said they were unhappy with their presidential choices. Texas Governor Rick Perry had briefly seemed like the perfect choice. Having proudly headlined an August prayer rally at Reliant Stadium in Houston, he entered the game like Tim Tebow -- and left like him, too. As soon as Perry joined the Republican debates, voters discovered he was too disoriented to find the end zone. In Myrtle Beach, Perry did everything but beat up a hippie on stage to prove his manly bona fides, but his candidacy is too far gone to be saved. Perkins said the Houston group passed over the Texas governor because he’d simply had too many “stumbles.”
Gingrich seemed to win the hearts of the 3,000 Republicans in the debate crowd, calling President Barack Obama the “food-stamps president” in a racially loaded attack that presages a general election battle between the party of the old and white against the party of the young and brown. Gingrich is a non-compassionate conservative and a wily debater, managing to make his suggestion that children take over janitorial duties at their schools seem reasonable while simultaneously blasting unions and “elites.”
Gingrich at Tiffany’s
But how could Christian conservatives credibly endorse the much-married Gingrich, who dwells happily among Washington insiders, makes money hand over fist as an influence peddler and spends unseemly amounts at Tiffany’s on his third wife? In the end, they couldn’t.
As for Ron Paul, he is too authentically unconventional to have ever been in the running for the group’s endorsement. Romney likewise never had a prayer. That left Santorum as the only option. With his sweater vest, pickup truck and rich history of earmarks, the former senator does not generate excitement. But he was the best they could do under trying circumstances.
By making the endorsement late, the Christian conservatives gave themselves an excuse if Romney bursts through the South Carolina firewall on his way to claim the nomination. By making it with obvious ambivalence, they preserved a bridge to the probable nominee.
The haphazard process, which seems certain to end with their eventual acquiescence to the nomination of a Mormon from Massachusetts, exposes how weak the old “religious right” truly is. It’s been years since Republican candidates were required to kiss the ring of preachers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. The thunder of Christian conservatives has been stolen by the Tea Party, which gave Republicans a new creed (“We’re against it”) and new life in 2010.
This year, Obama is a greater unifying force in Republican politics than the Almighty. If it takes a formerly moderate technocrat to defeat Obama, so be it. Heaven can wait. Meanwhile, blessed be the pragmatists, for they shall inherit the Oval Office.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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