Mitt Romney erased any doubt that he’s playing to win the Iowa caucuses when he rolled out his first campaign ads in the Hawkeye State last week. A glossy paper mailer pitched Romney to socially conservative Iowans as “the strongest Republican to beat Barack Obama and protect our values.” Romney’s “pro-life,” “pro-marriage,” and “pro-family” credentials were the three bullet points. “Mitt Romney lives his values,” read the “pro-family” text, as reported by the Des Moines Register. “He has been married to Ann for 42 years . . . and he has been a member of the same church his entire life.” (Translation: Unlike a certain unnamed former speaker of the House who is leading Romney in Iowa and national polls.)
“I believe he has a real shot,” Bob Vander Plaats, a leading Iowa social conservative, says of Romney’s chances in the state, where evangelical Christians make up 60 percent of GOP caucusgoers. But Romney won’t be winning with the support of Vander Plaats, who served as Mike Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa state chairman and lost the 2010 gubernatorial primary by 9 points to Governor Terry Branstad. “Most of the conservative base has written off Romney,” Vander Plaats tells me. “The problem is that we don’t have a natural like Huckabee we can coalesce around.” Vander Plaats says board members of his organization, the Family Leader, have ruled out endorsing Romney, Ron Paul, and Herman Cain.
Romney doesn’t need to win Iowa’s social conservative activists, but he does need to allay the concerns of enough social conservatives to win the state—and the nomination. Vander Plaats says that one big stumbling block for Romney is the Massachusetts health care law’s coverage of elective abortions. “They can try to spin” Romneycare, he says. “The fact is that abortions are still allowed under that law, and the state is involved in funding those abortions. That’s just not all that long ago.” In fact, the law passed in 2006—after Romney’s pro-life conversion.
Taxpayer funding of abortion is highly unpopular among the general electorate and outright toxic with Republicans. Voters opposed public funding of abortion by 72 percent to 23 percent in a 2009 Quinnipiac poll. Republicans opposed it by an eye-popping 91 percent to 5 percent. The issue nearly brought down Obama’s health care bill in an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. And Huckabee hit Romney on the issue of state-subsidized abortions in the closing days of the 2008 Iowa campaign. Mitt Romney “comes on and says he’s pro-life and yet he signed a bill that gives a $50 co-pay for an elective abortion in his state’s health care plan,” Huckabee said during a Meet the Press appearance four days before the caucuses. Romney lost Iowa to Huckabee by 9 points.
The Romney campaign says the attack that helped sink his Iowa campaign in 2008 is unfounded. “Longstanding court precedent requires Massachusetts to cover abortion services in government-subsidized plans,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul writes in an email to The Weekly Standard. “Decisions about what services to cover were ultimately determined by the independent Health Care Connector Authority pursuant to the law.”
It’s true that the Massachusetts supreme court ruled in 1981 that the state must fund abortions for people on government health plans such as Medicaid. Twelve other states—including conservative or battleground states such as Arizona, West Virginia, Minnesota, and Alaska—pay for abortions for Medicaid recipients because of state supreme court rulings. Only four states have enacted laws through the legislative process to allow taxpayer funding of abortion.
Still, some social conservatives don’t buy Romney’s defense that it’s all the fault of the judges. “You know what I would think if I were a pro-lifer? That’s a pretty darn good reason not to have the government take over the health care system,” says Steve Deace, a Christian conservative Iowa radio host and longtime Romney antagonist. “Forget the mandate, which is wrong to begin with. The first moral principle is don’t murder.”
Why would Romney expand access to government-subsidized health care if those plans would cover elective abortions? David French of Evangelicals for Mitt says that argument is a “classic example of not understanding what an actual governor of an actual blue state has to face.”
“Mitt Romney did not have the option of saying . . . that there won’t be government involvement in Massachusetts health care,” says French. “He was a conservative governor facing a veto-proof [Democratic] supermajority in both houses dead-set on a particular kind of health care reform.”
French argues that by going to the Heritage Foundation for advice and using what leverage he had, Romney got the best deal he could in Massachusetts. “Doing nothing wasn’t a realistic alternative,” he says. “People need to get over the idea that he’s coming out of Texas. He’s coming out of Massachusetts.”
“I don’t think it is fair to say that Governor Romney just expanded taxpayer funding for abortion as though that was kind of a directly intended policy decision on his part,” says Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at National Review and author of The Party of Death. “I certainly take the point that Massachusetts law requires abortion funding under Medicaid, and that is a reason not to expand Medicaid,” he says. “But you have to be careful about the principle that you’re acting on here. You don’t want to say something like you don’t want, let’s say, a free market insurance policy that leads to more people getting insurance” because some private insurance policies cover abortions.
The question for socially conservative Republicans isn’t whether Romney’s perfect—it’s compared to what. Romney’s chief rival at the moment, Newt Gingrich, doesn’t have a spotless record as a social conservative. Gingrich himself has a strong pro-life record, but in 2009 he endorsed liberal Republican congressional candidate Dede Scozzafava, who supported direct taxpayer funding of elective abortions. (Gingrich later said he regretted the endorsement.)
Gingrich also supported federal funding for research on stem cells that involved the killing of human embryos. In an interview with ABC News on December 2, Gingrich made some confusing remarks on the issue. He said that life does not begin when a human embryo is created, but rather when an embryo successfully implants in utero. Then Gingrich called embryo-destructive research “dehumanizing” and said he opposed it.
For Romney, embryonic stem cell research is the issue that led to his pro-life conversion. Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard law professor and former ambassador to the Vatican, says it took “political courage” for Romney to veto funding for embryonic research as governor. “Embryonic stem cell research was a big topic here in Massachusetts because we have a big biotech industry,” says Glendon, a Romney supporter during both of his presidential bids. “So for him to make that a central point of his own [pro-life conversion] was not a politically prudent position in his own state.” Pointing to Ronald Reagan’s signing of a liberal abortion law as California governor, David French says, “Mitt Romney has a much better record as governor of Massachusetts than Ronald Reagan had in California.”
Another issue that could hurt Gingrich among social conservatives is his history of infidelity and two divorces. “There is a large and significant gender gap on the issue of your two previous marriages,” Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote in an open letter to Gingrich. “My research would indicate a majority of men, but less than a third of Evangelical women, are currently willing to trust you as their president.”
“There’s no doubt we’re very concerned about his past,” says Bob Vander Plaats, who has worked with Gingrich on a number of issues. “However, part of our faith is forgiveness. He did not have a road to Des Moines conversion. He’s had five, six, seven years where he’s been repentant, he’s been humble, he’s been transparent, he’s shown a level of maturity.
“It appears that he has a strong relationship and marriage with Callista, he has a restored relationship with his children, a great relationship with his grandchildren. And so if his life change is authentic, then I think part of our faith is that we need to forgive and move forward,” Vander Plaats continues. “Part of it is he’s 68, not 58 or 48 either. As one soccer mom, who’s supporting Gingrich, said to me, ‘Bob, I really believe his childish ways are behind him.’ ”
For now, the thrice-married Catholic convert and former speaker is leading the formerly pro-choice Mormon from Massachusetts by double digits. But that could change. The position of Iowa frontrunner has been held by Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain each for about one month. The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are exactly one month away.
John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.