Vice President Joe Biden picked the right week to “get out over his skis” and force President Barack Obama to take an historic leap in supporting gay marriage. The administration quickly went from reluctant supporter of marriage equality to a campaign eager to pick a fight with Mitt Romney over gay rights, say GOP observers.
Romney is still bringing the Republican base to his cause, and has so far been hesitant to take on the right for fear their wariness toward him will keep important Republican constituencies from rallying to him in the fall.
Couple that with a nasty primary that drove everyone to the right, a reputation for flip-flopping and a speech at Liberty University this weekend, and Romney appears to be backed into a far-right corner, unable or unwilling — or both — to move toward the center on key social issues that could sway independent voters.
Past Republican nominees have challenged their party to shift direction on certain issues where they saw an opportunity to appeal to traditionally Democratic voting blocs. President George W. Bush preached “compassionate conservatism,” and urged Republicans to abandon the harsh “welfare queen” rhetoric of the Newt Gingrich era. John McCain stuck to his guns somewhat on climate change in 2008, distancing himself from the Republican core that considers climate science a hoax or worse. McCain also dismissed conservatives who believed Obama was lying about his origins. Both Bush and McCain, at various points in their careers, tried to lure the party toward the center on immigration reform.
So far, Romney has had none of these moments. Instead, his campaign has been marked by cozying up to the conservatives who were inclined to hold him at arm’s length when the campaign started. Romney took a stand as the furthest to the right on immigration, walked back his previously professed belief that climate change is caused by humans and declined to forcefully condemn Rush Limbaugh after he called Sandra Fluke “a slut.”
It would be possible to chalk up this up to the hard-fought, right-leaning primary race, which Romney had to win by outflanking conservatives like Gingrich (who suggested child labor laws be rolled back), Rick Santorum (who said contraception is immoral) and Rick Perry (who said Social Security was a Ponzi scheme). But since locking up the nomination, Romney’s continued to thwart opportunities to push back against the extreme right.
The right wing has noticed. Leaders on the right like Grover Norquist have said they expect Romney to toe the line. They doubt that he’ll challenge Republican congressional leaders on issues like the budget.
Observers say Romney’s in a self-made box and can’t have the kind of Sister Souljah moment he might need to win back support from the women and Latinos who have abandoned the party. That’s because — though he’s a sure-shot for the nomination — he is still proving himself to the furthest-right bloc of his party.
“If you look at the Republican electorate, he still gets 65 percent in some of these [primaries] and he doesn’t have any opposition,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), a moderate. He said Romney needs to pick a VP who’ll convince the insurgent wing of the party that Romney’s not a tool of the mainline GOP.
“It’s less conservative than it is establishment vs. anti-establishment,” Davis said.
What’s more, the current GOP just isn’t interested in being led away from its conservative stances, say others. Moderates like Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) who’ve tried to guide the party toward a middle path have become targets for the tea party to pick off. Even if Romney did try to push the GOP, said Republican strategist Ana Navarro, he’d find his calls falling on deaf ears. Navarro worked for McCain as well as Jon Huntsman, another Republican who tried to push the party to the center. She said the modern GOP is just not interested in hearing it needs to behave differently.
“If we’ve learned anything in the last four years it’s that the Republican base does whatever they want whenever they want,” she said. “Regardless of what Republican leadership may prefer them to do.”
On Thursday, the Log Cabin Republicans, a group representing gay Republicans, begged Romney and the rest of the GOP to say to stand up to the party’s right wing and embrace a more moderate stance on same-sex partnerships. But Romney is again about as far as one can get on the topic, having signed the ultra-conservative National Organization for Marriage’s pledge calling for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage at the federal level. Romney has said he’s also opposed to civil unions (though he believes states can bestow certain same-sex partnership benefits as they see fit.)
The Log Cabin Republicans say Romney needs to change his tune if he wants to get a second look from some of the demographics he’s been struggling with. The group believes Romney’s refusal to even back civil unions is a view he should definitely reconsider.
“I believe he understands the necessary consciences that are required to win the White House. And that requires narrowing the gender gap and winning younger voters and moderates,” said Christian Berle, spokesperson for the Log Cabin Republicans. “And one issues that we see that will hurt him among those three constituencies is a perceived intolerance toward LGBT rights.”
Some socially-centrist Republicans have expressed disappointment that Romney didn’t use the conservative outrage over his openly gay former national security spokesperson, Ric Grenell, as a catalyst for standing up to the extreme right. But Navarro said she’s not surprised.
“I’m not even sure Romney knows what a Sister Souljah moment is, much less how to pull one off,” Navarro said. “Sister Souljah moments are Hail Marys you throw in October, not in May when you’re not even the official nominee.”
On Saturday, Romney’s set to give the commencement address at Liberty University, home to the evangelical far-right. With events like those dotting his schedule, it’s unlikely that Romney will do anything to ruffle feathers on the conservative side of things.
Romney “is just now beginning to bask in Evangelical and conservative love,” Navarro said. “He needs to stick to his positions. The press and political public allows Obama to evolve on his positions. If Romney does it both the right and left will jump up and down screaming ‘flip-flop.’”