Republicans may have discovered another presidential hopeful who is a uniter, not a divider. Outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has managed to bring together religious conservatives and homosexual activists. Unfortunately for Romney, they've joined forces to attack him for gay-rights inconsistencies.
Gay-rights groups have been circulating a letter Romney wrote to the Log Cabin Club, an organization for gay and lesbian Republicans, during his unsuccessful 1994 race the Senate. In the letter, Romney promised to be a stronger crusader for gay rights than Ted Kennedy, the liberal stalwart he was seeking to unseat that year.
"If we are to achieve the goals we share, we must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern," Romney wrote. "My opponent cannot do this. I can and will." He vowed to support federal legislation prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, and credit while suggesting that he favored Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy because it would be "the first in a number of steps that will ultimately lead to gays' and lesbians' being able to serve openly and honestly in our nation's military."
The missive helped Romney win the Log Cabin Club's endorsement but it's now causing him problems with potential backers of his run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. The New York Times reported that prominent social conservatives were concerned about this revelation. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council called the letter "quite disturbing" and predicted Romney "is going to have a hard time overcoming this." Paul Weyrich said "an abject repudiation" of the letter's contents was in order -- and even then, "you have to ask, 'On what grounds?'"
Meanwhile, Romney's erstwhile allies in the Log Cabin Club aren't impressed with the New Mitt. "I've never seen anybody change like this," Rich Tafel, the group's former executive director, told the Gray Lady. "It really does concern me."
But it shouldn't surprise anyone. Ever since Romney emerged as a high-profile national spokesman against same-sex marriage, disgruntled Boston-area activists in the gay community and the religious right alike have been trying to shed light on the Bay State governor's record to expose him as a hypocrite.
Long before the national media paid attention, Massachusetts conservative activist Brian Camenker was warning anyone who would listen that Romney "has a long history of promoting and furthering the homosexual agenda" while Bay Windows, New England's largest gay newspaper, was running articles titled "Mitt Romney's secret gay history."
The dossier compiled by both sides is remarkably similar. In 1994, Romney campaigned in favor of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act and was generally supportive of gay rights. He said in a debate with Kennedy that the Boy Scouts should be open to all regardless of sexual orientation. Running for governor in 2002, Romney's campaign distributed pink fliers saying, "Mitt and [running mate Kerry Healey] wish you a great Pride weekend! All citizens deserve equal rights, regardless of their sexual preference." He was twice endorsed by the Log Cabin Club. And while opposed to both gay marriage and civil unions, Romney did support certain domestic partnership benefits.
Some of the flip-flopping accusations take on a hysterical tone -- did you know Romney even appointed gay people to public office? -- but they point to a real problem for the putative presidential contender. The dominance of Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain has created an opening in the GOP field for a strong yet electable social conservative. It's a void Romney has been striving to fill. To have any chance of success, however, Romney is going to need to win over evangelicals in large numbers.
Political analysts have been asking whether a Mormon like Romney can do well enough among evangelicals to wrest the Republican nomination away from the front-runners. Robert Novak has reported that the Mormon factor could be a significant problem while National Review's John J. Miller was more optimistic. But maybe being from Massachusetts will prove to be a bigger obstacle.
This weekend's New York Times story will only be the beginning of a steady drip of past statements that conflict with Romney's new socially conservative image. Massachusetts is a pro-choice, gay-friendly state. Republicans who have been able to do well there in statewide elections have adjusted their platforms accordingly. Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci ran as pro-choice proponents of gay rights; so did Mitt Romney.
Worse, in the Bay State it was liberals rather than evangelicals who were troubled by Romney's Mormonism -- they always suspected he was a closeted social conservative. Their interrogations forced Romney to go on the record explaining in great detail that he held politically correct opinions on abortion and homosexuality. The only thing opposition researchers working for the other GOP presidential campaigns need to do to unearth them is get a Nexis subscription.
Romney's campaign seems to hope that social conservatives will buy into a theory of evolution about their candidate's views. And many are convinced that his changes of heart are genuine. "Everyone knows that since his 1994 Senate run, Gov. Romney has changed," argued Charles Mitchell of Evangelicals for Mitt. "If you haven't changed since 1994, raise your hand."
Yet some voters, eyeing the record of a man with only a single term as governor, may want a better explanation of why he has changed. And perhaps there is less inconsistency here than meets the eye. Romney's arguments against same-sex marriage have never been about homosexuality per se but rather the importance of children having both fathers and mothers. Defending this proposition would be risky, but it would be better than acquiring a reputation for doing whatever is politically expedient.
Unless Romney comes up with something compelling, his efforts to appease culture warriors on both sides may just get him knocked out of the running by a one-two, left-right combination.
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