Message Discipline or Tin Ear: Mitt Romney and Social Conservatives

In the midst of the Chick-fil-A controversy last week, Mitt Romney voted “Present.”

In Las Vegas on Friday, a reporter asked Romney about the Chick-fil-A controversy and about Michele Bachmann’s call for an investigation into the influence exercised by the Muslim Brotherhood within the federal government.  Romney effectively shut down that line of questioning by saying, “Those are not things that are part of my campaign.”  He then moved on to the next question.

Aides to the presumptive Republican nominee claim that Romney is simply exercising message discipline by keeping the focus upon the economy, which he sees as the best way to defeat President Obama.  Some social conservatives are not convinced.

Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, told Newsmax that he found the remarks disheartening and speculated that many social conservatives – already uneasy with Mr. Romney – might sit out the race since they do not feel Romney will represent their interests in Washington.  Donohue wondered why Romney felt the need to go “agnostic on the issue” when leftists like Alan Dershowitz and the ACLU had already condemned the attacks on Chick-fil-A.

“Social conservatives have to make up their mind whether they should just simply stay at home, or go out there and vote for Romney,” said Donohue. “I’m astonished that he couldn’t even come to grips with the question — leaving gays out of it — do we want the chief executives, the mayors of large cities trying to intimidate, using the power of government against private enterprises whose politics they disagree with? I think it’s a pretty simple issue.”

Pat Buchanan and Richard Viguerie expressed similar frustration with the Romney campaign and echoed the same warnings.

Personally, as a social conservative, I give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt on this one.  It is clear that Romney and his campaign advisers see the economy as the dominant issue of the election and the perfect venue to draw a distinction between himself and Barack Obama.  They also view the economy as a way of unifying not just conservatives but moderates and just left-of-center liberals who might reject Obama’s overt leftism.  With that in mind, he refuses to be drawn off that issue.  Yet, unlike John McCain, Romney has so far refused to condemn those who attack Obama on other fronts.  In response to the same reporter, he flatly stated:  “I’m not going to tell other people what to talk about.”

Nonetheless, Romney’s strategy of focusing exclusively on the economy does present a clear danger.  Romney would do well to remember that the only hope he has to gain the White House is to lead a coalition of conservatives (social, fiscal, and national defense), moderates, and independents against the Obama/Chicago machine.  Each part of the coalition must feel that they have a stake in the victory and that the sacrifices (time, money, resources, etc) they are called upon to make are worth it.  A nod by Romney toward Chick-fil-A would have went a long way to putting social conservatives at ease.  The outpouring of support the company received from across the political spectrum would have given Romney enough cover to at least come out in support of free speech and against abusive governments (mayors) who would silence that speech.

Coalition warfare is a frustrating proposition and a messy affair.  Sometimes a leader has to yield to the needs of a coalition member and risk a little capital to support an ally.  As Winston Churchill once quipped:  “The only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without allies.”