Tim Stanley: Mitt Romney gets his nose in front after Barack Obama's gay marriage endorsement backfires
UNTIIL last week, things weren’t looking good for Romney. Poll averages put him trailing Obama, despite the poor economic news. His reputation was still battered by the primaries, which exposed him as detached, wealthy, pandering and creepy. If dogs could vote (and I’m sure that in Chicago, they do) Mitt would have been fifty points behind. Obama’s re-election looked likely, if not guaranteed. An historic first term would become an historic second term, and Obama’s face would be carved into Mount Rushmore – somewhere to the left of Abraham Lincoln.
However, for the last eight days Romney has enjoyed a slight lead in the polls. Rasmussen reports that he hit a high of 7 percent on Friday (while Obama’s net approval rating sunk to minus 19 percent), levelling out over the weekend to 4 points. It’s hardly a landslide, but the consistency suggests that Mitt finally has momentum. How come?
For a start, Obama’s culture war is backfiring. He seems convinced that it's a vote winner – hence his recent appearance at an elite women's college where he urged the graduates to join his fight for free contraception and abortion. Not "Work hard" or "Build a family" but "Fight for the right to have hot super sex at a low, low cost to your insurance provider." Change you can believe in.
But this culture war nonsense is starting to wear thin. Take the horrible mess that was Obama's gay marriage endorsement. Homosexuality is a deeply complex matter for most people – they have to balance their religious convictions with the desire to show compassion towards friends and family. Politics won’t resolve this paradox: the President doesn’t have the power to change men’s hearts, and social change comes through personal relationships rather than government diktat. Ergo, for most folks the substance of the gay marriage debate will have very little impact on their lives. What they will notice, however, is how the issue is used and abused by politicians to get votes.
Therefore, the news from Gallup that Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage has been a net loser is no surprise. Some of that will be prejudice, but a lot of it will also be anger at how Obama leveraged his endorsement in order to raise money. His flight to Hollywood to chow with Hollywood celebrities and his suspiciously instant attack ads imply that a lot of cynicism went into his decision. People aren't dumb: they notice these things. That's why a new CBS/NYT poll shows Romney with a 3 point lead over Obama, with an amazing 67 percent of respondents saying that Obama's gay marriage endorsement was politically motivated.
Meanwhile, gay marriage is perhaps the only significant social issue that Mitt Romney has never changed his position on, so when he delivered a sober statement on Thursday that “This is a very tender and sensitive topic … but I have the same views I've had since running for office,” for once his banal style paid off. While Obama’s endorsement looked like a cheap daytime TV stunt, Romney’s assured deflection came off as presidential. It said, “My priority is jobs.” And on that issue, the American people rate Romney higher than Obama.
Romney closed the week with a brilliant performance at the fundamentalist Liberty University. His message was in two parts. First, there was the usual pledge to turn the economy around. Second, he spoke about Christianity as a cultural phenomenon – something that has played a big role in America’s success. He acknowledged the differences between Mormonism and mainline Protestantism, but then emphasised what binds them together: “People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”
This is classic Mitt. On the one hand, it’s empty Clinton Card stuff that offends no one. On the other hand, it sends out a potent message for those who are listening for one. It says, “You might have issues with my Mormonism, but given Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage, who would you rather see in the White House? Let’s put our differences aside and unseat this crazy heathen.”
At the end of the primaries, I said that Mitt’s big electoral problem was that he faces opposition from both the Right and centre – evangelicals and independents. Thanks to Obama’s gay marriage gamble – and Mitt’s assured manipulation of it – the Right is now flocking back to the GOP frontrunner. For those who care about social issues, there can be no doubt that Mitt is their man.
But Romney’s genius is that all the time he is reaching out to the Right, he does it with such “gee, golly, shucks” inoffensiveness that the centre isn’t alienated. Imagine you are an independent voter living from pay check to pay check, terrified about losing your job. Who are you going to vote for? The President who hangs around George Clooney’s backyard talking about the importance of sexual tolerance while the economy stagnates? Or the guy who quietly says the real issue here is jobs? For growing numbers of Americans, it’s a no-brainer.