Today Mitt Romney will deliver the commencement address at Liberty University. He won’t give the speech this week calls for. (More)

The Speech Mitt Romney Won’t Give (Non-Cynical Saturday)

Mitt Romney has a personal connection problem. Last week’s AP/GfK Roper poll showed President Obama leading 50-42 among registered voters, but the more dramatic numbers were on specific issues:

  • Handling the Economy – President Obama leads 46-44, within the poll’s margin of error.
  • Protecting the Country – President Obama leads 53-37.
  • Handling Taxes – President Obama leads 47-41.
  • Handling Social Issues such as marriage equality – President Obama leads 53-32.

That poll was taken before President Obama spoke out in favor of marriage equality. A Gallup Poll this week found that 60% of Americans say President Obama’s announcement on marriage equality will not affect their vote, and only 23% said they would be less likely to vote for him because of that issue. Half of those, Gallup reports, are Republicans who were unlikely to vote for President Obama regardless.

The AP/GfK Roper poll was also taken before this week’s news of Romney bullying classmates and others in high school and college. Those stories are unlikely to help Romney with the more problematic personal character issues:

  • Better understands the problems of people like you – President Obama leads 51-39.
  • Is a stronger leader – President Obama leads 50-39.
  • More often says what he really believes – President Obama leads 54-31.

What Romney could say

Romney could use today’s speech at Liberty University to talk about the lifelong process of learning from your mistakes, perhaps with words like these:

You’ve reached an important milestone in your education today, but your education shouldn’t stop with graduating from college. Some of you will go on to earn advanced degrees, but all of you should keep learning from the University of Life Experience. I took another course at that school just this week, when I was reminded about having bullied a classmate in high school.

I read what my friends remembered about that experience and how it haunted them. In reading their words, I realized that what I did should have haunted me too. But I was too young and too sure of myself. I even did similar things again in college, as my father recounted years later. Like a lot of young people, I thought it was okay to pick on people who were different. Maybe you think that’s okay too. Maybe you’ve done it. If so, I’m here to tell you: it’s not okay. I was wrong, and if you did things like that, you were wrong too.

I read that one of my friends went back and apologized to Matt Lauber, the classmate I bullied. I wish I could apologize to him too. I’ll never have a chance to do that. He died in 2004. So if you’ve hurt someone, when you were in high school or here at college, if you thought it was cool to say or do mean things because they didn’t fit into your view of how people should be, go back and find them and take the time to say “I’m sorry.” Don’t tell yourself “I’ll do it later.” You may not get the chance, and you won’t like how that lingering regret feels.

Lessons like that are part of the University of Life Experience, and you should study those lessons as diligently as you studied to get the degrees you’ve earned today.

Locked in a Conservative Box

A speech like that – if both felt and delivered sincerely – might change how people see Mitt Romney. But he probably won’t give a speech like that, today or anytime before the election. Even if he sincerely felt that regret, and his half-apology suggests he doesn’t, he is locked in a “severely conservative” box.

Part of that box is his continuing struggle to win over social conservatives on the religious right:

“Most Republicans are going to turn out for Romney because he’s running against Barack Obama,” says Richard Land, the head of policy for the Southern Baptist Convention. “But he also needs an energized base that will help him get out the vote. … Right now, (social conservatives) are his to lose, but he could drive them away.”

The biggest gripe among social conservatives is not Romney’s Mormon faith or his shifting position on social issues like abortion, but rather his campaign’s singular focus on the economy. Many complain he isn’t talking enough about social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.

Yet the Gallup poll above found that 51% of Americans agree with President Obama on marriage equality, including 53% of independent voters. A Quinnipiac University poll in March found that 52% of voters disapprove of the state’s new forced ultrasound bill, and 72% government should not make laws which try to convince women seeking an abortion to change their minds. The Quinnipiac poll also found that 57% of all Virginia voters and 62% of independents believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases. And as RealClearPolitics Chief Political Correspondent David Paul Kuhn told Current TV’s Jennifer Granholm last week, “Mitt Romney cannot win the presidency if he doesn’t win Virginia.”

“Mitt Romney cut a hippy’s hair.”

Even setting aside marriage equality and reproductive rights, a speech against bullying people who don’t conform might meet boos at Liberty University. That school prohibits openly-LGBT students, and “Hair and clothing styles related to a counterculture.” As repugnant as Romney’s bullying is for most of us, it doesn’t bother many conservatives. RedState‘s Eric Erickson defended it, saying “Mitt Romney cut a hippy’s hair.”

And Romney isn’t likely to buck that sentiment. As Talking Points Memo‘s Evan McMorris-Santoro reported yesterday:

What’s more, the current GOP just isn’t interested in being led away from its conservative stances, say others. Moderates like Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) who’ve tried to guide the party toward a middle path have become targets for the tea party to pick off. Even if Romney did try to push the GOP, said Republican strategist Ana Navarro, he’d find his calls falling on deaf ears. Navarro worked for McCain as well as Jon Huntsman, another Republican who tried to push the party to the center. She said the modern GOP is just not interested in hearing it needs to behave differently.

If Romney wouldn’t stand up for a member of his own campaign staff, he’s not likely to stand up for someone who’s been dead for eight years, even if speech like that could change the dynamic of the election.

It might make President Obama’s reelection a more difficult challenge but – as a human being first and a progressive Democratic activist second – I still wish Romney would give that speech. I just hold won’t my breath waiting.

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Happy Saturday!