Ben Adler is a contributing writer for The Nation.
Mitt Romney came to the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC, on Saturday morning hoping to mollify his critics on the religious right. He tried his best, offering more specifics on the ways he would attack abortion rights and gay rights than his opponents had. And yet the conference organizers seemed to have it in for him. They scheduled Bryan Fischer, the extremist firebrand radio host and spokesman for the American Family Association, to speak immediately after Romney.
Fischer delivered the first real fire and brimstone of the weekend and his speech was essentially a plea for the 3,000 social conservative activists in attendance to vote against Romney. The theme of his address was what a president needs to be, and the answer was, in essence, an ardent Christian fundamentalist, not a Mormon or a moderate.
I profiled Fischer for Newsweek back in January, and he had harsh words for Romney when I bumped into him on Friday. Fischer told me he doesn't trust Romney on social issues. "Romney was pro-abortion as recently as 2005," Fischer noted. "It seems like he switched to being prolife for political convenience."
Fischer also blames Romney for the fact that Massachusetts became the first state to recognize gay marriages because it happened on Romney's watch. It was required by a state Supreme Court ruling, but Fischer thinks Romney could have waited for the state legislature to act instead of ordering state officials to grant marriage licenses to gay couples in contravention of what remained state law on the books.
"We have gay marriage in the United States because of Mitt Romney," Fischer said. "It was executive activism."
So I asked Fischer what would happen if Romney, who currently leads in the polls and fundraising, wins the nomination. "Romney would be John McCain," Fischer replied. "Social conservatives would be unenthusiastic and that would affect turnout and make it harder to defeat Obama."
If that's true, Romney had a quite a challenge in front of him today. (Fischer also told me that last year he saw Romney address this gathering and "he didn't move the crowd an inch.") The conference, hosted by the Family Research Council, has featured speeches from every major Republican presidential candidate. Many focused on economic and foreign policy, dealing with social issues only in passing.
That's normally Romney's approach as well. He has complained in interviews that he was forced to spend too much time discussing culture-war issues in the last election. At one debate this summer, when asked about "don't ask, don't tell" reinstatement, he responded with the cowardly diversion, "We should be talking about the economy." Romney admitted that he does, in fact, oppose letting gays serve openly in the armed forces. But with his eye on New Hampshire's social moderates and the general election, he generally focuses his pitch heavily on economics.
Romney was introduced by conservative legal activist Jay Sekulow, who is supporting him. While Sekulow hit the standard notes about supporting Israel and balancing the budget, he emphasized the fact that the next president could appoint Supreme Court justices who prove decisive in cases on divisive social issues. He mentioned partial birth abortion, but gave even more attention to the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance, a comically stupid obsession that has come up repeatedly at this conference.
As usual, Romney opened today with his typical talking points. Unemployment is too high, Obama squandered our triple-A bond rating, the stimulus cost too much money and a businessman like Romney is the one to turn the economy and budget deficit around. "I think to create jobs it helps to have had a job," Romney quipped, to gales of audience laughter. Apparently conservatives think Obama's experience teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago was not a job, despite their professed commitment to the Constitution and their adoration for Chicago professors like Milton Friedman.
Romney offered his most irritating trademark line that "I will never, ever, apologize for America." The myth that President Obama "apologized for America" has become such a widespread notion on the right that Romney need not even bother asserting that Obama did so. He added, for good measure, "If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I'm not your president. You have that president today." That was Romney's third laugh line, which makes him the second-funniest speaker of the weekend, after Herman Cain. You might say that's damning him with faint praise, but the "values voters" aren't known for their cutting-edge sense of humor.
Romney pivoted to social issues and gave them more attention than he normally does, or than some of his opponents did on the same stage yesterday. He segued by bragging—as almost every candidate speaking here has—about his marriage and fecundity (sixteen grandchildren!). "Marriage is more than a personally rewarding social custom," said Romney. "It is also critical for the well-being of a civilization. That is why it's so important to preserve traditional marriage—the joining together of one man and one woman. And that's why I will appoint an attorney general who will defend the bipartisan law passed by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton—the Defense of Marriage Act."
Romney went into detail on the ways that he would combat abortion: "I support the Hyde Amendment, which broadly bars the use of federal funds for abortions. As president, I will end federal funding for abortion advocates like Planned Parenthood. I will protect a healthcare worker's right to follow their conscience in their work. And I will nominate judges who know the difference between personal opinion and the law. It is long past time for the Supreme Court to return the issue of abortion back to the states, by overturning Roe v. Wade." Romney then riffed on the evils of China's policies regarding reproduction and took a swipe at Vice President Joe Biden's offhand remark that he understands their one-child policy. (This has become a fixation on the right.)
The audience cheered enthusiastically, including several standing ovations. But seeing the rebuke that would come from Fischer immediately after, Romney struck the first blow. "We should remember that decency and civility are values too," said Romney. "One of the speakers to follow me today has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language doesn't advance our cause, it's never softened a single heart or changed a single mind." Fischer has previously uncivilly suggested that the First Amendment only applies to Christians, and that Mormons are non-Christians so its protections do not apply to them.
Fischer opened by noting that the president "needs to be a main of sincere, authentic, genuine Christian faith." He then listed the beliefs a president must hold. Fischer has some high expectations. "We need a president who thinks Roe versus Wade was not just unconstitutional but profoundly immoral," said Fischer. Adding, "We need a president who understands we must choose between homosexuality and liberty and will choose liberty every time." Fischer said a president must "reject the morally and scientifically bankrupt theory of evolution."
Finally, Fischer transitioned into an ugly anti-Muslim section by saying, "I believe it's important that we have a president who understands that Islam is not a religion of peace but a religion of war and violence and death."
Fischer was not the first speaker to imply that Romney is unacceptable. Michele Bachmann, speaking Friday night, assured the audience that "You won't find YouTube clips of me speaking in support of Roe versus Wade. You won't find me equivocating or hemming or hawing when I'm asked to define marriage as between one man and one woman." Bachmann also repeatedly pleaded with the audience not "compromise" or "settle" for a "moderate." While Bachmann stuck to Romney's policy weaknesses, Baptist pastor Robert Jefress, who introduced Rick Perry yesterday, asked "Do we want a candidate who is a conservative out of convenience or one who is a conservative out of deep conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person—or one who is a born-again follower of the lord Jesus Christ?" He later told reporters that Mormonism is a "cult." The fundamentalism on display here may not be a cult, but it is every bit as pernicious and un-Christian.
Update: I asked Tony Perkins, the President of FRC, in a press conference Saturday afternoon why Fischer was scheduled to speak after Romney. He said it was a coincidence necessitated by the various speakers' schedules and there was no reason or ulterior motive.