Washington During the 1956 presidential campaign, comedian Mort Sahl said: "Eisenhower stands for 'gradualism.' Stevenson stands for 'moderation.' Between these two extremes, we the people must choose!" Half a century on, war abroad and cultural flux at home make for more dramatic choices. The campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination has been roiled by a recent event and an occurrence 12 years ago.
The Iraq Study Group's report increased the likelihood that John McCain soon might have to abandon either his current recommendation regarding Iraq or the moral judgment that is the basis of that recommendation. And his most formidable rival - so far - for the nomination, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, must square his current courtship of social conservatives with what he said in his courtship of gays and lesbians during his unsuccessful campaign for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in 1994.
McCain has said that current U.S. policy regarding Iraq is not working, that defeat in Iraq would be "catastrophic," and that defeat will result unless we increase the number of U.S troops there. He calls the ISG report, which does not recommend that, a recipe for defeat.
But just a few days ago Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, ridiculed U.S. efforts to train Iraqi forces ("What they have done is move from failure to failure") and rejected the idea of increasing the number of U.S. advisers embedded with the Iraqi army, saying that would subvert Iraq's sovereignty. This complicates McCain's position, which is that "it would be immoral" to keep sending U.S. troops to Iraq to maintain current numbers merely to "delay our defeat for a few months or a year."
So if the president's forthcoming speech on Iraq does not announce an intention to significantly increase U.S. forces in Iraq, at what point does McCain call for the liquidation of an "immoral" policy? He honorably would prefer not to call for that, even though doing so would serve his political interests by making his position on Iraq congruent with the electorate's.
McCain's challenge is to keep his Iraq policy in conformity with his analysis of military exigencies. Romney's challenge is to prevent political exigencies, as he understands them, from tainting his political appeal with the suspicion that he has what voters abhor - versatility of conviction.
During his 1994 Senate campaign, Romney wrote to the Massachusetts Log Cabin Club, the organization of gay and lesbian Republicans, saying that as "we seek to establish full equality for America's gay and lesbian citizens, I will provide more effective leadership than my opponent." The question is what Romney then meant by "full equality."
In 1994, gay marriage was far from central, as it is now, to the debate about gay rights. But in 2003, Massachusetts' highest court ruled that same-sex marriage is a right guaranteed by the state constitution. The question is: Has Romney, in his quest to get to McCain's right on issues that concern social conservatives, become contradictory?
He does seem to have either the zeal of a convert - or an indifference to elementary distinctions - when he accuses McCain of being "disingenuous" because McCain, who opposes same-sex marriage but believes that marriage law should remain a state responsibility, voted against an amendment to the U.S. Constitution declaring that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.
The Boston Globe reports that in 1994 Romney, who now supports a federal ban on same-sex marriage, told a Boston-area gay newspaper that the definition of marriage was a state prerogative. This, combined with his statement that he is pro-life because his views have "evolved" since 1994 (when he said, "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal"), leaves Romney vulnerable to the suspicion that his social conservatism is synthetic.
Romney can argue that judicial activism regarding same-sex marriage, as in Massachusetts, has made it impractical to leave the definition of marriage to state legislatures. And he can argue that a reasonable understanding of "full equality" for gays and lesbians need not include an entitlement to a legal status ("married") with a longstanding meaning and social function. But he should make his arguments soon, before voters come to an adverse judgment about how he makes judgments.
Events are accelerating the 2008 Republican nomination contest. When the president speaks on Iraq next month, McCain might be compelled to choose between endorsing a troop withdrawal leading to a "catastrophic" defeat, or an "immoral" policy of futile perseverance. And by then Romney must explain the ballast of belief he carries as he attempts to become the social conservatives' candidate.