Mitt Romney, the Beltway GOP, and the Meaning of Evansville

I have to admit, at the beginning of the last presidential campaign, I was intending to vote for Mitt Romney. I wasn’t a huge fan, but my primary concern was finding someone who could beat Rudy Giuliani, the one person in the race I simply could not support; on that score, Gov. Romney seemed like the best option. He was the most conservative of the plausible candidates, and had proven himself to be an effective executive in a number of positions. His record in Massachusetts doesn’t look as good now as it did before I really understood the situation with RomneyCare, but even given that fiasco, the man’s a capable administrator with the guts to make tough decisions. I still think he would have made a better president than John McCain, though Sen. McCain made a better losing nominee since he brought Sarah Palin on the national stage.

That said, since Gov. Romney began his run for the nomination, the only thing he’s done that hasn’t lowered my opinion of him was to suspend his campaign; at every other point, the more I’ve seen of him, the less I’ve thought of him. His recent attempts to diminish Gov. Palin, both directly and by proxy, only compound that; I understand why he’s doing it, but this is one case where to understand most definitely is not to forgive. The fact that he’s denigrating someone who simply doesn’t deserve it is certainly no more acceptable because he’s doing it out of raw ambition, after all.

Gov. Romney’s comments aren’t only ignoble, however, they’re also revealingly clueless. I’m not certain whether he really believes what he’s saying or merely considers it to be a plausible line of attack, but either way, it seems clear that he does not in fact understand Gov. Palin’s influence, which means that he doesn’t understand the reasons for her influence—and in this, I believe he’s representative of the GOP Beltway types who now consider him the rightful heir (or at least a rightful aspirant) to the party’s mantle.

They don’t like her because she’s not one of them, and they fail to understand that that’s why she’s influential: that she isn’t one of them is the whole point. She’s one of us, a politician who remains of and for the ordinary barbarians of this country, and at this point, any effort—any effort, no matter what else it has going for it—to elevate another Beltway insider as the GOP’s standard bearer is doomed to failure.

All of this, of course, has been said before, here and elsewhere; but there’s a particular aspect to it which I believe is highlighted in a bitterly ironic way by Mitt Romney, of all people, dissing Gov. Palin as just another pretty face. I don’t mean the fact that Gov. Romney himself consciously tried to use his looks to his advantage, and thus was far more deserving of his own jab than Gov. Palin, though the irony there is sharp enough; but there’s something more significant in play here as well, something which is thrown into sharp relief by Gov. Palin’s trip last month to Evansville, IN.

The key thing to understand about that visit is something the executive director of Vandenburgh County RTL said, which Joseph Russo used in his headline: “[Palin] walks the walk and talks the talk. She could . . . be doing other things, but she chose to do this.”

To know just how much that means, you need to know something about the pro-life movement: it has been the beneficiary, from many on the Right, of much talk and very little walk. It’s a grassroots movement outside the elite culture, outside the halls of power, that is primarily used rather than supported by those who have influence. I can’t think how many strong pro-life people I know who looked back at the Bush 43 administration last year and said, in essence, yeah, he gave us Roberts and Alito, but what else did he do for us? Was it worth what we did for him? And the thing is, George W. Bush was no worse in that respect than any other leading conservative politician—he was, in fact, completely typical.

And he wasn’t only typical of politicians, either. I know a pastor who served for many years as the senior pastor of a large, influential Southern Baptist church in one of the cities of the Deep South—a good man, a godly man, and one well familiar with the corridors of power and the wielders of influence in the Southern Baptist Convention. We were talking one time about the whole issue of abortion, and he made a statement that absolutely floored me: he declared that over his whole career, he had never known a Southern Baptist pastor who risked anything for the pro-life movement.

Now, consider that. The SBC is known throughout the country as a conservative Christian denomination, it’s known everywhere for its support of the conservative social agenda, and if you asked a random selection of non-Southern Baptists what they knew about it, I’d bet most of them would mention its opposition to abortion somewhere in there—and yet, according to him, that has all just been words. When the rubber meets the road, effectively, he said, Southern Baptist pastors have been unwilling to walk the talk, unwilling to lay their reputations, the reputations of their congregations, their positions, or anything else on the line to back up what they said they believed. And in that, I don’t say this to bash the SBC, because in my experience, they too are typical.

The point here, let me reiterate, is not to criticize George W. Bush, or my colleagues in the Southern Baptist Church—or me, for that matter; in all honesty, I have to admit that there have been times that I too have ducked away from the issue of abortion instead of taking a stand. I speak here with the rueful honesty of a regretful and repentant sinner; I know I’m no one to cast the first stone. My point, rather, is this: when you see someone willing to put their political capital where their mouth is, willing to lay something on the line and risk something real for the sake of a cause in which they claim to believe, pay attention. Pay attention, because here you have found someone who actually believes something, and does so strongly enough to live it out when it matters.

This, to come at last to the promise of my title, is the meaning of Evansville—and make no mistake, it’s a meaning that the organizers of those events understand perfectly. They have no doubt seen plenty of Republican types show up for the photo op and then be long gone when it mattered; for Gov. Palin to come and speak, especially at a time when she (and everyone else who was paying attention) had to know she was going to get hammered by the ankle-biters back in Alaska—to make an effort that actually cost her something in order to support a cause she believes in—clearly meant the world to them. That she refused the offer of a fundraiser as part of the deal (which I suspect she would have seen as cheapening her visit, and quite frankly would have cheapened it) only made her visit all the more meaningful.

The thing is, those folks in Vandenburgh County were absolutely right to feel that way, and to see Gov. Palin that way, because with that trip she did something that politicians rarely do: she gave of herself for the sake of others. She showed by her actions that her political positions aren’t just political positions, they’re things that she believes deeply enough and strongly enough that she’s willing to spend her own political capital and put herself on the line for their sake, and for the sake of the people involved. She showed that she was willing to make that effort and take the criticism and the sniping from the peanut gallery for the sake of people trying to save the lives of unborn children in southern Indiana, and for the sake of Down Syndrome children like her own youngest son. She showed that what she believes isn’t a matter of political convenience, nor is it subject to renegotiation for the sake of political advantage, because it’s rooted in who she is and what she cares about and what drives her to do what she does.

And in that, she separated herself—decisively—from Mitt Romney, the GOP establishment as a whole (though not all its members; it was also heartening to see Michael Steele there, and one may hope that this is a sign of things to come), the conservative chattering classes, and many of the party’s presidential hopefuls. And in that, she showed clearly the roots of her influence, and the reason why that influence will not wane unless she decides to lay it aside. To borrow a line from Abraham Lincoln on U. S. Grant which others have borrowed recently, we’ve decided that we can’t spare this woman—she fights. If the Beltway GOP wants to win our support, let them stop trying to tear her down, and go and do likewise.

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