When speaking to general audiences, the Romney campaign often dismisses social issues as irrelevant distractions. When an Iowa television station asked Ann Romney about the birth-control coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act, she refused to answer, saying, “Again, you’re asking me questions that are not about what this election is going to be about. This election is going to be about the economy and jobs.”
This would be news to most people at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., where Paul Ryan gave a combative speech late Friday morning. “When he tries to make big government sound reasonable and inclusive, the president likes to say we’re all in this together,” Ryan said of Obama. But such words ring hollow, he continued, “coming from a politician who has never once lifted a hand to defend the most helpless and innocent of all human beings: the child waiting to be born.”
Sponsored by the ferociously antigay Family Research Council—the Southern Poverty Law Center considers it a hate group—the Values Voter event has probably been tricky for the Romney campaign to negotiate. The campaign, after all, needs to stroke its still-wary base without openly associating with passionate cries for Kulturkampf. So neither Romney nor his wife attended, and, in order to avoid embarrassing Ryan, there seems to have been pressure on the organizers to drop Todd Akin, who until Wednesday had been slated to speak.
Nevertheless, the conference’s opening day should make it clear that many Republicans, including some in the party’s leadership, reject the Romneyite idea that the election is purely about economic stewardship.
Speaking shortly before Ryan, for example, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told the audience that while “pundits” will say “that this is an election about jobs and the economy…we know that this election is about something more.” (It was an especially rich line given that Republicans have spent months complaining about the media’s attention to social rather than fiscal issues.) The election, Cantor continued, “is going to determine whether or not the very moral fabric of our country will be upheld, or whether it will be torn apart.” He reminded the audience that after the 2010 midterms, the House made anti-abortion legislation a priority. “[O]ne of the first votes that we took when we assumed majority in 2010, with your help, was a bill to stand up against any government taxpayer dollars being ever used to kill innocent life,” he said.
After an introduction by professional moralizer Bill Bennett, whom Ryan, a former Bennett intern, described as his most important mentor, the vice-presidential nominee continued the theme. “I’m a values voter too,” he said. “In 53 days, we have a choice between two very different ideas about our country, about how we were meant to live.”
Of course, Ryan spoke of many things besides sex and religion, slamming President Obama on foreign policy, the economy, and health care. Speaking of those who attacked American embassies in Egypt and Libya, he said, “the least equivocation or mixed signal only makes them bolder,” as if to blame the crisis on Obama’s weakness. He accused Obama of treating Israel “with indifference bordering on contempt,” a frequently heard canard at the conference.
Should Obama be reelected, Ryan warned, he’ll be frighteningly unbound. “In a second term, he will never answer to you again,” he said, adding, “When the Obama tax increases start coming, nobody in Washington is going to ask whether you can afford them or not.”
But he wrapped up with the religious right’s favorite themes. “[T]he Obama-Biden ticket stands for an absolute, unqualified right to abortion—at any time, under any circumstances, and even at taxpayer expense,” Ryan said. He attacked the Democrats for not acknowledging God in their party platform, saying, “So much of our history has been a constant striving to live up to the ideals of our founding, about rights and their ultimate source. At our opponent’s convention, a rowdy dispute broke out over the mere mention of that source. For most of us, it was settled long ago that our rights come from nature and nature’s God, not from government.” And in an oblique jab at gay marriage, he described Romney as “[n]ot only a defender of marriage, he offers an example of marriage at its best.”
No doubt, none of this will stop the Romney spokespeople from insisting that issues like abortion, gay rights, and birth control don’t matter in this election. After Friday, however, no one should take them seriously when they do. Republican leaders are promising their base that if Romney and Ryan are elected, right-wing religious values will shape American law and policy. They’re either misleading their most fervent supporters or everyone else.