LOOKING OVER the field of potential Republican presidential candidates, one odd thing jumps out at me: Most of them have expressed deep hostility to the religious right's point of view in the past, and several of them are now insisting that they didn't mean a word of it.
One way to look at this is to conclude that they all said or did things they didn't mean, or that they have genuinely come around to the social conservative position. Oddly enough, this is the interpretation many social conservatives seem inclined to accept.
Or there's the other, more logical interpretation: The Republican Party's governing class is deeply hostile to social conservatism, and its leaders manage to fool the base over and over again.
This delicate situation was thrown into stark relief last week when Bay Windows, a Boston newspaper covering gay and lesbian issues, published an interview it had conducted with Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 1994. Romney, now a leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, had characterized the religious right as "extremists," said he essentially had the same position on gay rights as Ted Kennedy and cast himself as an heir to his moderate father, George Romney, the Michigan governor who walked out of the 1964 Republican convention to protest Barry Goldwater.
Those positions certainly seem believable. Mitt Romney had run as a supporter of abortion rights and legislation protecting gays from on-the-job discrimination.
But he has since reversed both positions, and an advisor insisted that Romney had been "faking it" as a pro-choicer, explaining that he had to do it because social conservatism is unacceptable to the voters of Massachusetts.
But wait a second. Social liberalism is unacceptable to GOP primary voters, right? So maybe, just maybe, Romney is faking it now, and all that stuff he said about gay rights and the influence of his moderate father was genuine, no?
This would be bad enough for social conservatives if Romney were the moderate in the race. But, in fact, he's the current favorite among social conservatives. Indeed, social conservatives don't even want to hear about Romney's scandalously tolerant past. Brian Camenker, a right-wing activist who has been sounding the alarm bells about Romney, has gotten a frosty reception from his fellow religious conservatives. " 'Why are you attacking Romney?' " they keep asking him, according to my colleague Ryan Lizza. "He's better than Giuliani and McCain.' "
The GOP primary is indeed a sorry state of affairs for the religious right. Sen. John McCain of Arizona once described religious-right leaders as "forces of evil" and has mused that he would not support the repeal of Roe vs. Wade. More recently, McCain, like Romney, has backed off his moderate statements (not surprising, given the furor they provoked). But McCain is even less credible in his newfound conservatism; only a total naif could believe him now. A general rule of political life is that when a candidate says something unpopular off the cuff and then takes it back in prepared remarks, you can be sure that the original statement is what he really thinks.
Meanwhile, the other leading contender, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is pro-choice, pro-gun control and pro-gay rights. When he left his second wife, Giuliani actually moved in temporarily with a gay couple.
I have to give Giuliani credit: Unlike Romney and McCain, he has admirably declined to discover a new set of deeply held social convictions. But, of course, there's plenty of time until Iowa.