Posted by: Joshua Green on December 7, 2011
Mitt Romney has begun airing a new television ad (“Leader,” above) that’s being widely interpreted as a not-so-subtle attack on Newt Gingrich’s eventful marital history. (Maybe you’ve heard about that?) The idea seems to be that by touting his own lengthy marriage to the same woman, and stressing his religious faith, Romney is sounding a dog whistle that social conservatives will pick up on and respond to in a way that accrues to his benefit. Count me as deeply skeptical about the effectiveness of this approach. Like Romney’s strategy of airily refusing to engage with his competitors — a strategy I endorsed that now seems to be backfiring — it wouldn’t surprise me if this one backfired, too.
My doubts rest on a number of factors. First, while granting that Gingrich’s multiple marriages and admitted adulterous affair hold no appeal for social conservatives, his current marriage to Callista has always struck me as obviously genuine and happy — and even sort of sweet. While stipulating that no outsider can possibly know what’s really going on in a politician’s personal life (see: Edwards, John), I’ve witnessed the Gingriches in semi-private — and Tweeted about it, like a lout — and it’s no exaggeration to say that Newt dotes on his wife. Not in a marching-the-missus-on-stage-let’s-give-her-a-round-of-applause sort of way, but in an awkward, heartfelt way that’s hard to fake and a bit embarrassing to behold.
Consider also the public record: shortly after declaring his candidacy, Gingrich took off on a two-week Greek cruise, supposedly at his wife’s insistence. In political terms, that’s utterly reckless. But Newt capitulated! Which is basically the opposite of tackily exploiting one’s family for political advantage and, in its way, a testimony to the importance he places on his marriage. And I doubt Newt took the equally reckless step of opening a million-dollar Tiffany’s line of credit because he likes outfitting himself in handsome cufflinks. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve always felt that this sort of thing conveys to the public, and maybe that’s one reason Gingrich hasn’t yet encountered many problems with social conservatives.
Next, consider the Romneys’ marriage: a 42-year-long, thoroughly traditional affair in which husband and wife appear to have been lifted from central casting for a “high-powered political couple” — both slightly brittle and affecting a sort of willed cordiality, but thoroughly decent, pleasant people who you’d never imagine scandalizing anyone. Three points here: First, it strikes me as slightly unbecoming when decent, pleasant people seek to exploit their marriage the way the ad does — and I’ll bet it strikes other people that way, too. Second, how effective is it, at this point, to tout the length of one’s marriage? Herman Cain’s defense against all the charges of sexual harassment and adulterous affairs was that he’d been married to the same woman for 43 years. For Romney to echo that line so soon after Cain’s self-immolation seems…well, an odd choice.
Finally, a dog-whistle attack that combines marriage and religious faith and aims to appeal to social conservatives — if indeed that’s what’s going on — seems a bit reckless to me if the person launching that attack is a Mormon. While stipulating that a candidate’s religious faith (or lack thereof) should never be an issue, Romney’s Mormonism certainly is an issue in places like Iowa. Appealing to puritanical social conservatives, who tend to be evangelical Christians, on the basis of one’s faith and marriage would seem to risk sounding the wrong kind of dog whistle — since, when many evangelicals think “Mormonism” and “marriage,” a different image leaps to mind than perhaps the one Romney intends.