Upon tuning in for Mitt Romney’s much-hyped speech on religion Thursday morning, many viewers probably asked the same first question: What’s George Bush doing there?
The former President invited Mr. Romney to deliver the address at his presidential library in College Station, joined him on stage and even offered a personal introduction.
And it makes perfect sense, because while it has been endlessly compared to John F. Kennedy’s defense of his Catholic faith in 1960, Mr. Romney’s speech actually comes straight out of the playbook Mr. Bush used to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.
Kennedy’s speech, delivered during the general election campaign, was aimed at a broad audience, of voters from across the political spectrum who feared a Kennedy White House might take its marching orders from Rome. He assuaged their worries with an emphatic statement of his support for the separation of church and state.
But the imperative faced by Mr. Romney is actually far more similar to the one Mr. Bush faced two decades ago: The need to convince conservative Christians that he is, at heart, one of them.
Mr. Bush began positioning himself for the ’88 race as soon as he and President Reagan were re-elected in 1984. Securing the G.O.P. nomination, he and his inner circle immediately recognized, would be far more challenging than for a typical sitting vice-president because of the emergence of the Christian right as the dominant force within the Republican Party.
The Christian right had little use for Mr. Bush, a son of WASP-y privilege who was born in Milton, Mass., raised in Greenwich, and educated at Yale. Everything about him screamed “Rockefeller Republican.” He had climbed the political ladder through his own personal and familial connections – his Christmas card list was said to contain 30,000 names – and his interest in the kind of ideological politics favored by the “New Right” was passing to nonexistent. When he’d sought the Republican nomination in 1980, he’d even argued in favor of abortion rights.
His challenge was further complicated by another Republican candidate who threatened to make deep inroads with the Christian right: Pat Robertson.
Likewise, Mr. Romney, when he began actively positioning himself for a 2008 presidential run back in 2004, understood instantly how poorly positioned to curry favor with the Christian right he was. He’d argued for abortion rights in Massachusetts and had said that he’d do more to advance gay rights than Ted Kennedy. There was also his Mormonism, considered by many conservative Christians to be something of an illegitimate faith.
And, just like Mr. Bush, he has also found himself confronted with an opponent tailor-made for the religious right: Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister.
Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Romney responded to these tough political realities the same way: By reinventing themselves.
Mr. Bush swore off his past social liberalism, declaring himself a staunch believer in “the sanctity of human life” and loudly advocating – for the first time in his career – public school prayer. He doggedly courted prominent Christian figures – most notably Jerry Falwell, who came through with an early and surprising endorsement – even inviting them to the White House. He even tried to mimic his targeted supporters’ eagerness to announce their faith publicly: At one point, Mr. Bush, a lifelong Episcopalian, pronounced himself a born-again Christian.
The makeover was so transparent that conservative columnist George Will, writing in early 1986, commented: “The unpleasant sound Bush is emitting as he traipses for one conservative gathering to another is a thin, tinny ‘arf’ – the sound of a lap-dog.”
Mr. Romney has pursued his candidacy in almost precisely the same manner. His move to the right began when Massachusetts’ high court ruled in favor of gay marriage in early 2004, a moment that essentially forced Mr. Romney to choose between sustaining his popularity at home and maintaining his presidential viability. He chose the latter, embracing a gay-baiting style that rendered him unelectable in the Bay State but much more palatable to the Christian right. A flip-flop on abortion followed shortly thereafter, and by the middle of 2005, Mr. Romney, fully two-and-a-half years before Iowa, had made himself a viable conservative candidate – on paper.
But a profound cultural disconnect with the Christian right remained, thanks to his Mormonism. His solution has been to avoid any discussion of the specific tenets of his faith and instead to emphasize the broad philosophical – and in many cases, ideological – common ground that exists between Mormons and Christian conservatives.
His speech on Thursday is simply an extension of that strategy, a high-profile event made necessary by the surprising and growing strength of Mr. Huckabee, who has tapped into a sea of Iowa Christians who seem to feel more personally comfortable with the Baptist preacher than the Mormon bishop. The speech was carefully crafted to blur whatever lines exist between Mormonism and Christianity.
“I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty,” he said. “Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage.”
That exact sentiment is often invoked by Christian conservatives. Mr. Romney’s speech, in a sense, is his own, much less clumsy way of doing what George H. W. Bush did 20 years ago: Saying “Me, too” to the Christian right.
Mr. Romney’s father, the late George Romney, sought the G.O.P. nomination in 1968. He entered the race as the favorite, but his campaign fell apart over comments he made about the Vietnam War. But his religion played no role in that campaign. George Romney never gave a speech on it, and never felt any pressure to. The reason is obvious: The Christian right didn’t exist as a political power in 1968.
Today, a conservative presidential candidate can’t long survive without support from that segment of the Republican Party. The reinvention of Mr. Romney, like that of Mr. Bush before him, is proof.