Just hours after social conservatives met and voted to support Rick Santorum, no matter how late in the day, comes word of recriminations and accusations, with those who supported Newt Gingrich claiming that the vote was rigged.
Which, as Steve Benen and others have pointed out, only reinforces the idea that social conservatives, if they really wanted to defeat Romney, presumably should have settled on one of the anti-Romneys months ago.
This leaves us with two possibilities. One is that social conservatives really just can’t get their act together. That’s certainly possible … although many of us remember a time not all that long ago when Christian conservatives were thought to be a well-oiled political machine.
The other possibility is that they consider the stakes very low. In other words, they really don’t care much about the difference between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum (or Rick Perry, or Newt Gingrich, or Tim Pawlenty). They may not actually prefer Romney – or they may feel that their constituents wouldn’t appreciate an outright Romney endorsement – but they have come to trust him on the issues they care about. After all, right now there’s little difference between the professed positions on these issues between Romney and the rest of the field. Those of us who believed Romney could have a problem with social conservatives (and I’m one of them; I always thought abortion was a much bigger problem for him than his religion or his record on health care) have believed that social conservatives just wouldn’t buy Romney’s conversion narrative.
But in fact it’s probably likely that Romney would stick with his campaign rhetoric once in office, rather than falling back on whatever it is that he truly believes (and of course it’s just as likely that Romney was faking socially liberal beliefs when he was campaigning statewide in Massachusetts as it is that he’s faking socially conservativebeliefs now). That’s what the political science literature shows, and it’s what makes sense, anyway. After all, while Romney as president might not be as frightened of a Tea Party primary challenge as he would be of a general election defeat, he would presumably have a whole lot more control of the former, since any deviation from the anti-abortion line (or other key social conservative positions) would have an immediate and very predictable reaction. So, for example, it’s highly likely that Romney would repeat George W. Bush’s record on judicial appointments with potentially devastating effects on liberals’ preferences.
So I really have no idea what social conservatives are up to (and for more detailed reporting on that, see Sarah Posner), but what I’m seeing is actually consistent with a possibility that they really are pretty much okay with Mitt Romney. And whether they are or not, the odds are that they should be: as president, he would probably support their agenda down the line.