Analysts are wondering whether the 2012 presidential race is a “base” election or one geared toward the center and the undecideds. Mitt Romney’s thematically peripatetic address at the Republican National Convention Thursday night sheds some light on his team’s thinking on that question
It is one of the few addresses of this magnitude I can ever recall hearing that did not sound as if it were crafted by a professional speech writer. The candidate lurched from subjects ranging from women, to his family, to families in general, to small businesses, to his mom, to foreign policy, to energy policy, and beyond. And back again.
Here and there, Romney indulged in a smidgen of faith and values politicking. Those who thought he was going to “own” his Mormonism were disappointed. There was reason to suspect he might talk about his religion in some depth.
Yet aside from a few generic references to his congregation and a very peculiar cocktail party quip about investing his church’s pension fund, his audience learned little about the role of faith in shaping his worldview. Which is, by the way, just fine. But his reluctance to do the God talk requires some context.
Back in 2008 Romney ran as an “evangelical Mormon.” He aimed to faith-up his once religiously bland, moderate blue state persona. The plan was to entice the “values voters” who had been so good to George W. Bush four years earlier. This stratagem worked for a while. But when conservative Christians finally took note of Mike Huckabee, Romney’s presidential dreams crashed and burned.
For the majority of the 2012 campaign, however, the former governor of Massachusetts has assiduously muted his religious rhetoric (as has, for different reasons, President Obama).
On the basis of Thursday night’s address, Romney’s handlers have perhaps decided that the lucrative conservative Christian voting bloc (i.e., the base) is sufficiently energized and no longer needs the pandering. Romney thus gave them a wink on school vouchers (as part of his five-point recipe for creating 12 million jobs), nods to the “sanctity of life,” and “the institution of marriage,” and a few winged words about religious freedom.
Maybe the calculation was that earlier speakers such as Rick Santorum and Huckabee would shore up Romney’s religious bona fides by proxy. Perhaps, but as I noted both men rendered lukewarm endorsements of Romney, at best.
Some of Romney’s personal acquaintances delivered more on-message paeans to his religious values earlier in the evening. A strong faith-based case for rendering unto Romney our vote--for those who require such a thing--has yet to be made. Then again, the opposite case hasn’t been made either. So maybe the Romney people, aware of his minority status, are happy to leave it at that.
In terms of religion, we must read Romney’s play-it-safe speech (compare it with his brash, paradigm-shifting “Faith in America” speech of 2007) as an indication of where his campaign’s priorities are located. The road to the White House, Team Romney has concluded, goes through women, undecideds, and small business owners. Of course, it also goes through evangelical and conservative Catholic America. But those constituencies, apparently, have been safely secured.
Jacques Berlinerblau is associate professor and director of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. His next book “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom” will be released in September. Follow him on Twitter @Berlinerblau