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Republican Ads Get Personal

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (left) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry at a Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Sept. 7, 2011. (Photo: Monica Almeida / The New York Times) There are only two Republican presidential candidates—Mitt Romney and Rick Perry—with the cash on hand to overwhelm the airwaves with advertising in the run-up to the primaries. They have both just released strange new commercials. By making nakedly cynical appeals on the basis of personal morality

There are only two Republican presidential candidates—Mitt Romney and Rick Perry—with the cash on hand to overwhelm the airwaves with advertising in the run-up to the primaries. They have both just released strange new commercials. By making nakedly cynical appeals on the basis of personal morality

and religiosity, they have given up any pretense of trying to win the campaign on their records and policy platforms.

Romney—still mostly in front-runner mode, despite the fact that Newt Gingrich now leads him in polls nationally and in most early primary states—released a far milder spot than Perry. Romney’s commercial for Iowa and New Hampshire is fairly standard campaign pabulum: God, country and family are awesome. It’s a clip from him speaking at the MSNBC debate, and it’s an interesting choice because Romney clearly screwed up his memorized “humanizing” biographical soundbite. He says:

“I think people understand that I’m a man of steadiness and constancy. I don’t think you’re going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do.

“I’ve been married to the same woman for twenty-five—excuse me, I’ll get in trouble—for forty-two years. I’ve been in the same church my entire life. I worked at one company, Bain, for twenty-five years. And I left that to go off and help save the Olympic Games.

“If I’m president of the United States, I will be true to my family, to my faith and to our country, and I will never apologize for the United States of America.”

Making an ad around this clip is strange because it could remind viewers of three of Romney’s liabilities: phoniness, flip-flopping and Mormonism. Presumably Romney started to say he’d been married twenty-five years because he confused his marriage talking point with his Bain talking point. An alert viewer might take note of that and be reminded of Romney’s image of phoniness and insincerity. It’s also surprising that Romney claims to be “a man of steadiness and constancy,” which contradicts his well-deserved reputation for flip-flopping. The assertion could serve only to remind people how preposterous Romney’s claim to constancy is. Mentioning his church is a risky move since that church is the Mormon Church and plenty of Republican primary voters in Iowa could be hostile to it.

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Until now Romney’s campaign strategy has been to admit that he won’t win on personal likability and focus laser-like on his perceived strength, the economy. But until now Romney wasn’t fighting off Gingrich.

The commercial serves a purpose besides bolstering Romney’s appeal: it draws an obvious and favorable contrast with Gingrich, a serial adulterer who converted to Catholicism. Romney is also obliquely attacking Obama with his promise not to apologize for America, because, he frequently, and falsely, contends that Obama once did so.

Perry is much less confident in his position, and with good reason. Having fallen out of the top three in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Perry is getting desperate and his dishonest, gay-baiting commercial demonstrates it.

“I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

“As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.”

“Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.”

Yes, it’s very brave indeed for Perry to publicly profess his Christianity. Since when have American politicians been afraid to say they’re Christian? What will be impressive is when someone running for president is not afraid to say he’s an atheist. It’s especially confusing because Perry starts by touting his religiosity, but then gives his viewer a pass for not going to church herself. If you aren’t a regular churchgoer, are you really likely to be angry that your kids can’t pray in school?

Perry spent much of the race mimicking Romney’s concentration on economic policy. But given his lack of fluidity when discussing such complicated matters as which cabinet departments he proposes to close, Perry has apparently decided he has no choice but to make naked appeals to bigotry and religious chauvinism. The ad is just a compendium of culture war distractions. Why is being unable to pray in school such a problem? You’re only there for six hours, 180 days a year. Is praying the rest of the time really inadequate? Isn’t that what churches are for?

In any case, it has nothing to do whatsoever with allowing gays to serve openly in the military. The former is a First Amendment question for judges, the latter a law passed by Congress. Neither can be unilaterally changed by a future President Perry. The linkage of the two in Perry’s ad has no purpose other than to say to a reactionary sitting at home, “Here are two things that make you mad.”

Most misleading, though, is Perry’s reference to “Obama’s war on religion.” We’ve started going to war without acts of Congress, but this must be a really covert operation, because Obama has never even publicly announced his intention to fight this war. Actually, that’s because no such war is being fought.

Perry’s campaign apparently sensed that inventing an Obama policy to oppose out of nowhere might raise a few eyebrows, so they included seven links supposedly demonstrating that Obama is, indeed, prosecuting a war against religion. The articles constitute pathetically underwhelming evidence that any war on religion exists in the White House. Some of the stories have nothing to do with religion at all. For example, one of the links is to a story about how the Obama administration is no longer defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court. Perry can argue that this decision was incorrect, but to suggest, without even bothering to make an argument, that the legal decision constitutes a war on religion has no basis in fact. The law itself has nothing to do with religion, so how can voiding it be an attack on religion? Likewise, Perry points to the Pentagon’s deciding that military chaplains can, if they choose, perform same sex weddings. This isn’t an a limitation of religious freedom; it’s an expansion of it. Some chaplains will choose to do so, while others won’t.

What Perry really means when he says Obama is fighting a war on religion is that Obama is fighting a war against homophobia. And it shows just how highly Rick Perry thinks of religion that he would reduce it to a form of bigotry.

You can watch Perry’s commercial, which the Log Cabin Republicans have criticized, here:

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