On Monday, satirical news site the Onion sent around a story describing how excited President Obama was for to participate in the “first debate.” It’s a funny joke, if overplayed, and one that after Tuesday’s debate maybe the president and his supporters might be able to laugh at. Obama’s performance was what we might have expected the first time around—solid, with a few moments that were strikingly, er, presidential—and will doubtlessly stop the hemorrhaging and panic induced by two solid weeks of conversation over an abysmal performance.
His Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, on the other hand, did largely what he needed to do: he mostly held his own ground against the president, turning what might have been a route into only a marginal Obama victory. And on the economy, particularly, Romney was impressive. After answering the opening question about college students who can’t get jobs with vague generalities and platitudes, Romney hued closer to his five-point plan and to delivering a message that Obama has failed to deliver on his promises during the last four years.
Still, I suspect Romney did more than he had to do with a demographic that he needs to be enthusiastic about his presidency: evangelicals. As is by now well known (even if thoroughly debunked), evangelical conservatives have ostensibly been reluctant to vote for a Mormon. They’ve softened up on that front, clearly, but I suspect Tuesday night’s debate will go a ways toward helping out. While there was no mention of the HHS mandate, and Romney did seem to indicate support for contraception, Romney also managed to drive home a key evangelical concern through the most surprising of places: gun control.
After noting the need to enforce existing gun laws and his reluctance to add to them—a reluctance with merits that we can debate another time—Romney went on to highlight a core evangelical concern:
But let me mention another thing. And that is parents. We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the -- the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that’s a great idea.
Because if there’s a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will -- will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity, and bring them in the American system.
Integrating the economic questions of poverty with the social institution of marriage is a strategy that evangelical conservatives have long been working to do. The DeVos Center at the Heritage Foundation has been hammering away at this theme for quite some time now. And Romney’s decision to frame a contentious issue around this question is simply smart politics (which is why Obama echoed it after).
But it is also, like the economy, comfortable terrain from Romney: as someone who comes out of a stable household and by all accounts has a thoroughly happy family—Michael Brendan Dougherty’s account of his family vacations for ESPN is compelling reading—he can speak genuinely and authentically about the vast importance that parents have in their children’s lives.
Yet on policy, this is also a point that Obama can take advantage of. When Obama announced that his Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships would be including fatherhood in its list of core concerns, the news was greeted with cheers by top evangelicals. Obama has continued to spend federal money to raise awareness for the importance of fatherhood, a strategy that some conservatives might not endorse even if the end is good. Still, there is enough of a record there to make a compelling case.
But Romney’s chief liability with social conservatives has been his trustworthiness on “their issues” as it were. With his unprompted wandering into marriage from the question on gun control, though, Romney reinforced the trust he had been working to build and took an important step toward engendering the enthusiasm he needs now and on Election Day.
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