But when Governor Romney talks about these issues, he throws in something else we don’t expect: a call for tolerance. And in so doing, he isn’t just telling us what we want to hear, despite Larison’s claims to the contrary.

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But he doesn’t. Even after months of taking flak from both sides–the misguided conservatives who claim he isn’t conservative enough and the radical homosexuals who will never forgive him for steadfastly fighting their push to redefine marriage–he still keeps using the same message: Marriage is for a man and a woman but that does not excuse us from our obligation to tolerate everybody.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just boil it down? Wouldn’t it be easier to simply inveigh against “those people?” To claim that he was wrong even to utter the word “tolerance” in 1994 or anytime since? Surely it would. Yet he sticks to this more complicated message. ~Charles Mitchell, Evangelicals for Mitt

Mr. Mitchell’s post was fascinating to read.  Mr. Mitchell replies to my earlier post, which had criticised Romney for pandering (among other things), by saying that Romney can’t possibly be pandering to evangelicals, and this is because he expresses support for non-discrimination and tolerance for homosexuals.  This is just about as plausible as Rick Perlstein’s claim that Romney chose the Henry Ford Museum as his launch site because it supposedly sent a coded nativist, pro-Nazi message to all of the nativist pro-Nazis he needs to get to win in the primaries.  Both are arguments about Romney and pandering, and both badly misunderstand how pandering works.  Mr. Mitchell’s argument assumes that a “complicated” message cannot be one aimed at pandering to any particular group, because apparently pandering can only be in simple, unvarnished terms of hostility to the target group’s enemies.  Perlstein goes for the opposite extreme: Romney panders through symbolic appeals so subtle and far-fetched that almost no one could pick them up.  Let me propose a happy middle ground between these alternative views of pandering: “complicated” messages are likely to be used for pandering to many groups all at the same time, and symbolic appeals are best and most effective when they are clear and unmistakable nods to a particular group.   

Mr. Mitchell’s response is very interesting.  Rather than taking the repeated talk of tolerance for homosexuals as proof of Romney’s indelible moderate Republican background and more evidence that he isn’t really the full-blown social conservative he claims to be now, Mr. Mitchell believes that this confirms that Romney is taking a principled stand not just on same-sex “marriage” (which might be his one position that is least vulnerable to charges of absolutely rank opportunism) but on everything else about which Romney has been accused of opportunism and pandering.  The logic here seems to be that Romney never insincerely strikes pose for political benefit, because Romney doesn’t reinvent all of his positions.  Mr. Mitchell has offered this observation as an absolute refutation of the accusation of pandering, when it tells us instead that Romney is trying to have it both ways: he wants to convince social conservatives that he is one of them without losing his appeal to moderates.  He wants to send all the right signals–by saying all the right things–to conservatives while also dropping hints to moderates that, whatever his views about same-sex marriage, he isn’t some backwoods fanatic…like the evangelicals whose votes he is trying to win by declaring his opposition to same-sex marriage.  This is similar to Mr. Bush’s nods to evangelicals combined with a supposedly less-threatening style of religious conservative vision (“compassionate conservatism”) that would put at ease swing voters concerned about religious fundamentalism. 

Mr. Mitchell seems to be admitting that Romney is trying to have it both ways with a “complicated” message when it comes to attitudes towards homosexuality, but he takes this as yet another reason to think that Romney is sincere about his “conversion” on life issues.  Apparently, a “real” pandering pol trying to win over evangelical voters would be even more egregious in his pandering than Romney, and he would throw in “extreme” lines about the abomination of homosexuality to convince people that he is really hard-core.  Why do I find this explanation unconvincing?  Presumably, Mr. Mitchell can similarly explain away Romney’s flip-flopping on campaign finance reform or tax policy or gun control or…well, there are so many that it’s getting hard to keep track of them.    

Whatever else might be said about this defense of Romney, I’m not sure that this is exactly the kind of argument that will endear Romney to evangelicals.  “See, he isn’t simply pandering to evangelicals–unlike those people, he doesn’t call for repression and injustice!”  This is an argument that seems to draw on Andrew Sullivan’s stereotype of conservative Christians as repressive authoritarian fanatics or Gary Rosen’s idea of the same as “authoritarian bullies,” but I don’t quite understand how it makes Romney more credible to the conservative Christians to whom he is trying to appeal.  By all means, I encourage Romney’s supporters to continue defending him with arguments that seem to be calculated to put off a large part of his target audience.