Often, a winning presidential campaign can be defined by a key moment when the candidate takes what at least appears to be a bold stand against certain extremes in their party. The best example of this is Bill Clinton's "Sister Souljah" moment, when in the 1992 campaign he publicly condemned the remarks of some obscure rapper whose own remarks seemed to ask why blacks didn't take a break from killing on another to instead kill white people. (This wasn't exactly what Sister Souljah was calling for, but her statements were certainly interpreted this way) By condemning her statements, Clinton made a show of "bravery" by running up against her apologist, Jesse Jackson, who at that time was influential among the Democrats' black and liberal wings. This boosted Clinton's support among independents, made him look strong, and helped him win the presidency. Since then, a "Sister Souljah Moment" has come to mean the time a rising politician took a shot at his own side's sacred cows, looking both strong and more moderate at the same time.
Mitt Romney has just been given the chance to have his own "Sister Souljah" moment. Last week, the news world was agog with repeated comments by Rush Limbaugh to the effect that a 30 year old law student who had the nerve to testify to members of Congress in favor of contraception coverage in university health plans was a "prostitute" and a "slut" who should post sex videos online. The comments were not just crass and crude--I am a fan of crass and crude things generally--but they were also mean and pointlessly insulting. There's really no debate on that matter.
Because Limbaugh for some reason holds a lot of sway as a conservative pundit (and yes, William F Buckley must be spinning in his grave), and because the issue at hand is also a matter of public policy, this would have been a great moment for Romney to have a Sister Souljah moment of his own. When reached for comment on Limbaugh's remarks, all he'd have to say is something along the lines of: "What Rush said about this woman was vile and uncalled for, and he ought to apologize sincerely and personally to her for it. She was participating in a civil discussion about whether and how certain health coverage should be paid for, and exercising her constitutional rights while doing so. To be the target of such epithets, even if only intended in jest, is beyond the pale and quite disgusting."
This would have done a few things:
1) It would have gotten Mitt Romney the spotlight on this issue, right as we're about to enter Super Tuesday, because it would have been the strongest condemnation of Rush from a major GOP candidate since Limbaugh first became a household name.
2) It would have shown moderates and independents that Mitt is not beholden to the party's right wing, and that at heart he's a normal, reasonable guy. And those are the key voters to watch this fall.
3) It would have looked like leadership, even though it takes only common sense to do so.
And really, what would be the risk? That Limbaugh would go ahead and endorse Rick Santorum? Fine, add that dubious advantage to Preacher Rick--Santorum gets less and less likely to become the nominee the more people realize he's a complete theocrat. And what conservative could really see what Limbaugh said and say "right on! You tell her!"?
Instead, though, Romney went with a mild rebuke, noting that Rush used language "I wouldn't have used." Really, Mitt? Sure you're not being too hard on Mr. Limbaugh???
This may later be seen as the moment that could have made Mitt Romney a winner, but his fecklessness may have sunk him.
Surprise and Fear
1 week ago