DES MOINES—“It's a historic day,” Rep. Steve King of Iowa announced yesterday from the podium of the FAMiLY Leadership Summit 2012, a major gathering of social conservatives in a suburban Des Moines megachurch that drew a host of national political celebrities. King wasn’t talking about the event, or even the prospect of ejecting Barack Obama from the White House, but of the choice of his friend and colleague Paul Ryan to become Mitt Romney’s running-mate. The first mention of Ryan’s name elicted raucus applause from the crowd—which included the last two Iowa Caucus winners, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, along with one-time 2012 front-runner Rick Perry—that even exceeded that for the first reference to Chick-fil-A, the sandwich purveyor now famous among the Christian Right for its “biblical” values.
Mitt Romney, by contrast, was barely mentioned during the portion of the conference I attended; the presidential candidate's primary significance on this day was his V.P. selection. Overall, the sense I got from the crowd was not so much the incandescent excitement that greeted the selection of Sarah Palin (a maximum celebrity in the anti-choice movement long before John McCain’s decision to make her his running-mate) among similar people in 2008, but of a quiet satisfaction that the election cycle was headed in the right direction. There was zero doubt that social conservatives are now mobilizing to support the GOP in November as never before.
This wasn't always a given. Indeed, achieving a state of quiet satisfaction among the turbulent, ever-demanding ranks of movement conservatives may have been the most important goal motivating Mitt Romney’s surprise selection of Ryan. In a very real sense, the primaries did not end for Romney when he clinched the presidential nomination months ago, and might not have ended even with his formal crowning in Tampa on August 30. The conservative commentariat has constantly peppered Romney and his team with criticism, mainly encouraging a more sharply defined, ideological, “substantive” campaign. In some cases that criticism may have reflected sincere strategic advice for the GOP nominee. But it’s hard to avoid the more obvious conclusion that serious conservatives simply didn't trust Mitt Romney, and were planning on continuing to insist on a serial reestablishment of Romney's bona fides, up to and indeed far beyond November 6.
By giving the greatest gift within his immediate power, the vice-presidential nomination, to the conservative movement’s very favorite politician, Romney has finally ended the primaries, and may now hope to have achieved his own liberation from friendly fire and the politically counter-productive need to respond whenever ideological commissars crack the whip. In effect, the Romney campaign could be saying to the Right: “Here you go! Now STFU!”
At this early date it isn’t clear if this definitive propitiation of the angry spirits of the Cause will work, or will outweigh the risks involved in elevating someone as controversial as Ryan. Perhaps the calculation is that while activists thrill with delight or horror at Ryan’s name, the actual electorate knows little about him, and the Romney/Ryan ticket can now run a campaign of its choosing, leaving the significance of this “historic day” to the activist elites and ultimately to the historians.
In any event, whether the selection of Ryan reflects Romney’s final surrender to the leaders of the conservative movement, or a crafty effort to buy them off and shut them up with the fool’s gold of symbolic power, it does represent a bit of late vindication for the Right, which seemed to have so thoroughly botched its own efforts to consummate its conquest of the GOP by controlling the 2012 presidential nomination. There was certainly no sense of lost opportunity among the attendees of the FAMiLY Leadership Summit, even in the remarks of the men who once were hailed as the candidates who might finally turn the ever-faithless GOP into a fine instrument of God’s Will and the invisible hand of unregulated markets.
If Romney/Ryan lose on November 6, it will not be for lack of conservative enthusiasm for the ticket. But it’s another matter entirely as to whether this enthusiasm will be contagious beyond the ranks of the already-persuaded.