In the past week, two of the leading GOP candidates for president found themselves in hot water with the Republican base over their connections to what we might call the other team in the culture war. Both Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson were left to explain (in Romney's case) or deny (in Thompson's) that their obeisance to the "traditional family" -- and all the necessary beliefs that go along with it -- is anything less than complete and abject. For neither the first time nor the last, it all comes down to sex.
Romney's problem is about what goes on in hotel rooms when the blinds are closed. The former Massachusetts governor served on the board of the Marriott hotel chain from 1992 to 2001 (the Romney family and the Marriott family are extremely close; Romney's first name is Willard, after J. Willard Marriott, the company founder). As at most large hotel chains, guests at Marriott can sample from a variety of adult offerings on their televisions, whether their preference is for naughty co-eds, naughty housewives, or naughty nurses.
Hotel room porn is one of the primary foci of the anti-pornography movement, which by going after Romney can earn some priceless publicity.
When the attacks came last week, Romney's statement in response argued that the issue is All About The Children. "I am not pursuing an effort to try and stop adults from being able to acquire or see things that I find objectionable; that's their right," he told the Associated Press. "But I do vehemently oppose practices or business procedures that will allow kids to be exposed to obscenity."
Wrong answer, Governor. First off, your service on the board would seem to be all about business practices. What about that enterprising young teenager flipping through the televised offerings in his hotel room while the parents are down at the pool? As I once heard former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh point out during a debate on the topic in the early days of the internet, there is no force on earth more powerful than a 12-year-old boy trying to get his hands on a picture of a naked woman.
But Romney's real problem is in the first part of his response. Adults have a "right" to see pornography? Romney obviously hasn't been a conservative long enough to know his audience very well.
We'll get to why that is in a moment; the other candidate in trouble this week was Fred Thompson. Already working to explain his position on abortion, a fuzzy mass of seeming contradictions which seems to grow less clear by the day, Thompson now has to answer for the fact that he seems to have actually done lobbying work for a reproductive rights organization.
It appears that the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association hired Thompson in 1991 to lobby the Bush I White House to ease the "global gag rule," which prevents any organization that receives U.S. foreign aid from mentioning abortion in any way.
(The policy began under Ronald Reagan, continued under George H.W. Bush, and was suspended under Bill Clinton. George W. Bush reinstated it the moment he took office. He also initiated an attack on the U.N. Population Fund, essentially declaring war on the ability of women in the developing world to have access to both abortion and contraception.)
Despite the fact that people from both the NFPRHA and Thompson's old lobbying firm confirm that he did lobby for them, and that minutes of meetings the organization held at the time discuss his hiring, Thompson issued a flat denial that he did any such thing. As hard as it is to swallow given the evidence on the other side, even if potential Thompson supporters believe what he's saying, he's hardly out of the woods on abortion.
The thicket through which Thompson will have to trudge is revealed in statements like this one, which he made in a televised debate during his 1994 senate race: "Should the government come in and criminalize let's say a young girl and her parents and her doctor? I think not."
Wrong answer again. Pro-lifers may know they'll never actually succeed in getting women who have abortions thrown in jail. But they do believe that women who seek abortions are guilty -- guilty of being dirty sluts. As such, they deserve to be punished, if in no other way than by forcing them to carry their pregnancies to term.
Both Romney and Thompson are finding themselves on the wrong side of the conservative view of sex and anything that has anything to do with it. Put simply, for social conservatives sex is a realm of danger, where any transgression from a strictly defined set of roles and behaviors is not just unacceptable but a terrifying threat to society itself. Whether you accept that view determines whether you're one of them or not. As the two men competing most actively to be the "real" conservative in the race, Romney and Thompson need to show that they're conservative right down to the bone. There may be some room for minor apostasies here and there (like Thompson's support of the McCain-Feingold legislation), but there had better not be any questions when it comes to sex.
As sociologist Kristin Luker puts it in When Sex Goes to School, her insightful analysis of local battles over sex education, "for conservatives, sex is sacred, while for liberals, sex is natural." (Luker also notes that the first sex education movement in the early 20th century used "social" as a euphemism for "sexual" (as in "social disease"), and that today we do the same with "social issues," which are all about sex in one way or another.)
As something sacred, sex is infused with both majesty and awesome power to destroy, a terrifying ménage a trois between you, your partner, and a God that may be loving or vengeful, depending on His mood. Luker reports that for some of the conservatives she interviewed, "sexuality, especially for men, was by its very nature destructive and needed to be contained." One of her subjects "believed, and believed deeply, that the only way this powerful disruptive force could be controlled was to channel it into marriage and to marshal every resource -- legal, moral, and emotional -- to keep it there."
For social conservatives, traditional ideas about sex form the borders of civilization that must be policed with a vigorous and unflagging vigilance. Anyone who crosses one or more of those borders has entered a foreign country, one that not only has alien values but is constantly plotting its invasion of our own blessed land, scheming to lay waste to all that we hold dear.
Romney and Thompson are working to send the right signals to the GOP voters, assuring them that they're all about "family values" -- they hate abortion, homosexuality, pornography, heavy petting before marriage, and anything else that might unleash or validate the sinister urges lurking within each of us. But evidence of a blasé attitude about hotel porn, or a temporary alliance with a pro-choice group, could signal that they're not as serious as they should be about sexual border security.
Their saving grace might be that there is no single candidate around whom social conservatives are rallying. Both Romney and Thompson want to be that candidate, though the early returns are not encouraging. But as long as social conservatives remain fractured, GOP contenders with seedy pasts still stand a chance.