On Meet The Press this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) may have started an important debate within the Republican Party that will last for the next few years. Not surprisingly, the Mark Sanford scandal made up a significant portion of the two men's joint appearance. Graham, a frequent MTP guest, hails from South Carolina (and, as he mentioned, he is godfather to one of Sanford's sons). Romney is both an ex-state chief executive and a former presidential presidential candidate.
As a result, both were uniquely qualified to address the political and personal aspects of the Sanford situation. For good measure, Romney is -- from all reports -- a quite happily married Mormon with five sons (one more than Sanford). Graham, meanwhile, is something of a confirmed bachelor with no kids. (And, yes,there are rumors about Graham's "lifestyle" that even came up in his campaign to replace Strom Thurmond in 2002.)
GOV. ROMNEY: Absolutely. There's no question in my mind but that our...
MR. GREGORY: And do you think the public believes this after a string of personal failings that have happened to Democrats and certainly plenty of Republicans?
GOV. ROMNEY: I, I, I don't think there's any question but that we aspire to the highest standards of ethical conduct and that we aspire to values that'll make America stronger. There's no question. But the best think you can do for raising a child is to have a mom and dad love each other in a home. And, and to say that and to say we want to see marriage between men and women, that we want to see families raised with the benefit of people who are married, that's a, that's a very important part of our culture. It's part of what our, our [party] believes. We believe in life. These features are important. And do we have people who don't live up to those standards? Absolutely. That's, that's going to be true.
Graham, however, took a broader, more nuanced, view that genuflected before a rather important non-Republican elephant in the room:
SEN. GRAHAM: You know, and I don't believe Democrats are for dysfunctional families. We don't have any ownership. I think President Obama, quite frankly, has been one of the better role models in the entire country for the idea of being a good parent, a good father. So this idea that, that, that we're for good families and Democrats are silent's not true. I think we fail on both sides. But quite frankly, President Obama has done a lot of good in his--the way he carries himself and conducts himself in the area of family.
The observation about Obama's is something that other Republicans -- even fierce partisans -- have also noted. Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer, and a strong critic of the current administration said this after the Sanford story broke: "As Father’s Day has just passed, it is worth noting that the most significant representation of family values---once considered the province of the GOP---in America today is President Barack Obama."
Ironically, Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and subsequent impeachment may have only brought forth short-term political gain for the GOP (George W. Bush's win in 2000 had much to do with the scandal completely turning off the South to the Gore campaign). Long-term, it etched the phrase "family values" to more than just the Republican position on abortion and gay rights. Marital fidelity became part of the package. Thus, every straying Republican politician helps undermine the social conservatism part of the GOP message.
So, where does that leave the party? Does it retreat on social conservatism? Or does it try to start compartmentalizing aspects of its message? Graham may be attempting that. He didn't merely clarify his votes on the Clinton impeachment case (Graham voted against the article that was connected to Clinton's lying about his relationship with Lewinsky, but voted for the connection to lying in the Paula Jones trial.); he essentially tries to drop "family values" -- at least with respect to marital constancy -- as a rhetorical weapon to be used against Democrats.
Since the odds are far greater that Mitt Romney -- rather than Lindsey Graham -- will be running for president next time around, it would seem that his traditional view on "family values" is more likely to remain part of the GOP message. Well, now is exactly the time to hash out these internal party debates. If nothing else, Romney will get experience figuring out how to push a social conservative message in a way that demonstrates Republicans actually value families more than they do hypocrisy.