With still twelve months until the first presidential primary, Kansas senator Sam Brownback hit former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney close to home earlier this week — and where it could hurt.
In a press release Monday, the Brownback Exploratory Committee announced he has the support of “key social conservative leaders in Massachusetts,” mostly pro-life activists. Eschewing subtlety, the “Brownback for President” release said that these supporters have “pledged their help in educating social conservatives around the country that Senator Brownback is the true choice for those who care about the right to life and the sanctity of marriage”
The early Republican face-off follows weeks of questions about Gov. Romney’s past statements on abortion and gay issues.
Some of these early endorsers of Brownback were undoubtedly casting a clear anti-Romney vote by signing up with Brownback. Carol McKinley, founder of Faithful Voice, a Catholic group, runs an anti-Romney website. Her “Prolife Mitt Romney Watch” directs readers to, among other things, the anti-Romney hub on the Right, MassResistance. This group, while laying out inconsistencies in his record accuses Romney of being the “father of gay marriage” for refusing to ignore the supreme judicial court of Massachusetts’s ruling legalizing gay marriage. Their assessment has been making the conservative-movement rounds since mid-November.
But Dwight Duncan, one of the Brownback endorsers, told NRO last week that the contention that Romney is to blame for the state of marriage in Massachusetts is really “over the top.” According to Duncan, a professor at the Southern New England School of Law, “On the whole, [Romney] has been consistent in defending marriage as traditionally understood. Furthermore, his use of the bully pulpit and the courts has been unquestionably instrumental in getting the legislature to finally fulfill its constitutional duty and vote on the citizen-initiated constitutional amendment regarding marriage. Unfortunately, the political culture up here is such that it has become nothing short of amazing for legislators to do their job and vote on a controversial social issue.”
Supporting his guy without disparaging the other, Duncan says, “While I am personally a conservative Democrat and would prefer a candidate like Senator Brownback, Romney’s victory has been impressive.”
Duncan notes what might be Romney’s biggest obstacle — the perception he’s another Massachusetts flip-flopper — but commends the former governor’s move in the right direction: “On the pro-life front, Romney has been generally supportive, but his record there has not been as consistent, as he has changed position. The nice thing from my perspective is that he has moved in a pro-life direction (unlike many politicians who have moved the other direction).”
Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, agrees: “When people ask how we can support such a switch, I ask if they ever question Teddy Kennedy’s or John Kerry’s switches from pro-life to pro-choice.”
Mineau is among those Massachusetts social conservatives who are grateful to have had Romney in the statehouse. He takes issue with “MassResistance’s denigration of Governor Romney.” According to Mineau, “For the four years of his administration, Governor Romney provided strong leadership on key conservative social issues — whether it was politically expedient to do so or not.” He tells National Review Online, “I believe Mitt Romney has done an excellent job in defending traditional family values in Massachusetts despite an extremely hostile legislature and judiciary, not to mention an attorney general and secretary of state who both opposed everything the governor stood for.”
It’s a view echoed by Marie Sturgis, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, who says, “Having Governor Romney in the corner office for the last four years has been one of the strongest assets the pro-life movement has had in Massachusetts. His actions concerning life issues have been consistent and he has been helpful down the line for us in the Bay State.”
Mineau adds, “From the onset of the infamous Goodridge court decision in 2003, Governor Romney has opposed same-sex marriage and, I believe, correctly sought to overturn it through a constitutional amendment. In 2004, he invoked the state law that prohibited out-of-state same-sex couples from marrying in Massachusetts thus preventing the exportation of these so-called marriages to other states. In 2005, he ardently supported a citizen petition for an amendment to end same-sex marriage that wound up gathering a record number of 170,000 signatures. Throughout 2006 he lobbied the state legislature that was refusing to vote on the amendment. His intense involvement culminated with the filing of a suit in the State Supreme Judicial Court in December to mandate the legislature to hold the vote as required by the state constitution.”
Mineau directly credits Romney with getting the state legislature to vote on a constitutional amendment on gay marriage earlier this month. He explains, “The court unanimously ruled on December 27 that the legislature was constitutionally obligated to vote. This ruling, coupled with the governor threatening to not sign the end-of-year legislative pay raise, resulted in the legislature passing the amendment on January 2nd, the last day of the session. This could never have happened without Governor Romney’s leadership.”
Mineau is among the signatories of a letter expected to be released on Thursday by a coalition of “organizations dedicated to fighting for the pro-family agenda in Massachusetts.” Coming days after the Brownback release, the letter and accompanying documents — both organized independent of the Romney Exploratory Committee (though Romney staff have been aware of and in no way opposed to the effort) are a response to MassResistance attacks on Romney’s record. The letter, which organizers provided NRO with drafts of Wednesday night, defends the governor’s record and praises his staff for their commitment to affirming a culture of life, protecting traditional marriage, and defending religious liberty. Among those signing the letter are Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon (who also serves as the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in Rome).
An accompanying brief by constitutional lawyer David French, a founder of the group Evangelicals for Mitt (French also writes for NRO’s “Phi Beta Cons” blog), is a longer defense of the governor’s social-conservative cred. In the beginning of a six-page document French asserts: “In the midst of Governor Romney’s efforts to rescue his state from a fiscal crisis and create lasting and innovative health care solutions, activist judges and a far-left legislature forced issues of same-sex ‘marriage,’ abortion, religious liberty, stem cell research, and gay rights into the forefront. Each time he was challenged, the Governor not only made the conservative choice, but also did so with an optimistic, unifying message. In doing so, he became a national leader on these vital cultural issues without squandering his ability to govern the Commonwealth.”
The decidedly pro-Romney French is optimistic and confident that his contribution will help ease conservative concerns nationally: “within Massachusetts this is not really a pure ‘he said, she said’ argument amongst equal advocates,” French asserts in an interview with NRO. “Truth be told, many of the Massachusetts critics just don’t have equivalent stature as the governor’s local social conservative supporters. They are no doubt earnest and arguably well-meaning (though some of their material seems flavored with a special kind of malice). But the substance of their argument boils down to a bunch of old statements, frankly bizarre constitutional arguments, and disagreements about how much authority — regardless of cost in political and moral capital — the governor should have wielded over a few low-level bureaucrats with the administration (such as the tiny Massachusetts Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth).”
Will such defenses and endorsements (on Tuesday, for instance, South Carolina senator Jim DeMint said of Romney, “He feels passionately that the value of human life begins at conception”) — along with Romney’s own acknowledgement that he’s “had [the abortion issue] wrong in the past,” quell social conservative concerns about Romney? Time will tell. At the moment, despite early attempts at discrediting him among pro-life and traditional-minded Republicans, there is no monolithic Right view of Romney. Which view does eventually prevail may very well determine his 2008 fate. Ultimately, the businessman — who officially established a presidential exploratory committee only last week, as his gubernatorial tenure ended — is going to have to make the best case for himself. But then that’s what a campaign is all about, isn’t it?