“Culture matters,” Romney says

I have praised Rick Santorum for articulating, better than any candidate I have heard, the connection between “cultural” and economic issues. I have also noted that Mitt Romney has mostly steered clear of discussing this connection, though I believe he understands it. In fact, having read The Real Romney, a biography of the candidate by two Boston Globe reporters, I am convinced that he does.

Today, in a commencement speech at Liberty University, Romney addressed the matter. This is what he said:

You enter a world with civilizations and economies that are far from equal. Harvard historian David Landes devoted his lifelong study to understanding why some civilizations rise, and why others falter. His conclusion: Culture makes all the difference. Not natural resources, not geography, but what people believe and value. Central to America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life.

The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the pre-eminence of the family.
The power of these values is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Senator Rick Santorum brought to my attention. For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2%. But, if those things are absent, 76% will be poor. Culture matters.

As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.

Liberty University is a fundamentalist Christian institution, so this was a natural venue for Romney to discuss the importance of “culture.” But the days when a candidate could make a pitch to a particular audience without that pitch becoming his official position are long gone.

Thus, for purposes of this election, the question is not Romney’s stance, but how much he will emphasize that stance during the campaign.

That question will be resolved by the campaign’s hard-headed assessment of the extent to which talking about culture will help or hurt the candidate. If Romney has a bias, I suspect it’s against talking much about it, except to special audiences like the one at Liberty. I know that Romney views his prospects as heavily tied to doing well with “swing voters” and not doing too badly with women voters. Thus, he is likely to err on the side of caution when it comes to hot button cultural matters.

Romney and his team can better analyze how to win this election than I can. And there is little doubt that the economy, viewed without reference to other concerns, is by far Romney’s best issue. However, I don’t consider the most prominent contested cultural issues to be losers for Romney, and I hope that he will continue to argue from time to time that, as I’m confident he believes, “culture matters.”

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