The timing of the news that Mitt Romney will deliver the commencement address at Liberty University next month seems a bit funny, as in: Wouldn’t it have made more sense to do this last year?
In the spring of 2011, after all, Romney was just embarking on his second bid for the GOP nomination, and the skepticism he’d be facing from Christian conservatives was obvious. His moderate past was haunting him anew, thanks to the right’s retroactive decision to equate the sort of individual mandate that Romney had enacted in Massachusetts with tyranny and socialism. And there was still the question of just how much of a turn-off to evangelical Republicans Romney’s Mormonism would be. So it would have been logical for Romney to pay a visit back then to Liberty, the Jerry Falwell-created school that bills itself as the largest evangelical Christian college on the planet.
But now things are a little different. Romney is the presumptive Republican nominee, one who has a pretty serious image problem with the general election audience. His imperative is to appeal to the middle of the electorate, voters who are frustrated with President Obama but apprehensive about empowering the Tea Party-era Republican Party – and who have historically been uneasy with the mixing of religion and hard-right politics that Liberty represents.
That Romney is making a high-profile speech at Liberty anyway suggests two possibilities. The most likely is that he’s still nervous about his standing with his party’s base. A new poll this week found that about half of all Republican evangelicals say they have reservations about Romney, even though – for now, at least – they say they will support him over Barack Obama in the fall. The Liberty speech could just reflect what figures to be an ongoing problem for Romney, trying to balance the need to reach out to the middle with fears of turning off the GOP base.
Romney isn’t the first Republican to face a dilemma like this. When he was president, George H.W. Bush delivered Liberty’s 1990 commencement speech. It was his way of paying back Falwell for the support he’d given Bush in the 1988 GOP primaries, when Bush had been struggling to overcome evangelical skepticism (and an opponent named Pat Roberston). But while Bush felt compelled to speak at Liberty, the White House tried to downplay the significance of the visit, scheduling a second commencement address for Bush on the same day (at the University of South Carolina). And Bush’s speech to graduates shied away from culture war themes and was focused on upheaval in Eastern Europe. It will be interesting to see whether Romney plays his speech the same way, or if he decides that he also needs to include some red meat.
It’s also possible, of course, that Liberty is losing a bit of its stigma. The school remains a bastion of Christian conservatism, but Falwell has been dead for six years now. The school’s name may not be quite the lightning rod it once was, so Romney may not face much blowback for paying a visit.