NEWS ANALYSIS: Mitt Romney gave the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Saturday, offering a confident and heartfelt speech that largely avoided politics and policy, but focused instead on values, culture and faith.
He didn't mention President Barack Obama by name, but he did take a few oblique digs at his adversary. "Not everyone has achieved as much in these last four years as you have," he said during his opening comments.
The highly anticipated speech placed Romney at the crossroads of two conflicts. It had been long-anticipated as a key step in consolidating support of conservative evangelical Christians, who had rallied behind Rick Santorum in the primary fight and had shown strong aversion to Romney's Mormon faith.
In this first objective, the speech may have been effective. "He did it," enthused David Brody at the Christian Broadcasting Network. Brody credited the success to Romney's "subtle case that his worldview comports with those of evangelical Christians. In short, Mitt Romney’s speech should be seen as a successful and important bridge to evangelicals." More later on Romney's subtlety.
But after Obama's embrace of gay marriage earlier in the week, the speech took on added significance and a second objective. In responding to Obama's move on gay marriage, Romney had very briefly confirmed his position in favor of traditional marriage, but also made it clear that he would rather be talking about the economy.
In many ways, the Liberty address is the speech Romney had to give but would have preferred not to give. Romney’s campaign strategy rests on sticking rigorously to the economic failures of the past four years, with the tagline “Obama isn’t working.” And yet, he had to reassure values voters that he was not indifferent to their concerns.
Among those concerns is, of course, marriage. At Liberty on Saturday, Romney did address marriage, though only in a single sentence, saying simply that "marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman."
How he got there is perhaps of greater note. Rather than leaping into the marriage issue with an enthusiastic burst of ideology and rancor, he got there deftly via solid social science, economics and culture.
“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 percent. But, if those things are absent, 76 percent 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."
By leveraging a Harvard economist and a Brookings Institution study, with a shout out to Rick Santorum along the way, Romney said what his audience required without sounding strident or harsh.
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