Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 19, 2007
POLITICS: The Trouble With Mitt Romney (Part 5 of 5)
The fifth and last installment of a five-part series on why Republicans who are serious about winning the White House in 2008 are wasting our time on Mitt Romney. For background, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and, from February 2007, my explanation of why I'm with Rudy and my take on Mike Huckabee.
V. The "M" Word
A. Why It Shouldn't Matter
At long last, after 12,086 words of turning the Eye of Sauron on Mitt Romney, we come to the delicate matter of Romney's religion. A few preliminaries are in order. First, I will admit that, perhaps naively after seeing how Ted Kennedy cynically used it as a wedge against Romney in 1994, I was initially dismissive of early concerns that Romney would face unusual electoral problems due to his Mormon faith. Second, I myself would vote with great enthusiasm for a Mormon president if he's otherwise a good candidate (i.e., Orrin Hatch - yes. Harry Reid - no.). As I have said before, I was behind Romney in 1994 and 2002. Sure, there are some things Mormons believe in, theologically speaking, that seem downright bizarre to me, but other people's religions often look like that from the outside. Short of a politician espousing a religious doctrine that leads to actively dangerous policies, I'm fine with having a President I disagree with on matters of faith - after all, 41 of the 42 men to have the job weren't of my faith (Catholic), and the one who was wasn't exactly a saint, nor is the nominal Catholic I'm supporting this time around.
Moreover, there is a lot to be said for sticking religious bigotry in a box where we never take it into account. Especially when, as The Wall Street Journal put it:
The Mormons seem the very embodiment of "family values," and you couldn't invent a religious culture that lived more consistently with Biblical messages. Broadly speaking, most Mormons have, and come from, big families; they're regular churchgoers and give to charity; they don't drink, smoke, gamble or engage in premarital sex. On the scale of American problems, the Mormons don't even register.
And, one would add, Mormons are just about the most solidly Republican group in the nation. I would hate to see Mormons come away from the 2008 primary process feeling like their guy didn't get a fair shake because of his religion. In fact, some people have even advocated supporting Romney for that reason alone, while others contend that Romney would draw strength from the inevitable bile hurled by the left at his church. So it's with a fair amount of trepidation that I even get into this topic, given the very long list of legitimate reasons to oppose Romney's nomination that I dealt with in the first four installments.
B. Why It Does
For all of that, though, politics must be conducted in the real world. As a Rudy supporter, I've spent a lot of time arguing with people who would sit out the general election and let Hillary win rather than lift a finger for Rudy, mainly over his views on abortion. I've made my case as to why it doesn't make the slightest bit of sense. But the fact that he loses some such voters is a reality Rudy has to deal with, and is one of the main reasons why I've been giving a second look to John McCain and, to a lesser extent, Fred. Rudy's answer to that dilemma is that he's a great candidate who can bring in other people to the party to replace the voters he loses, in a way that works to his advantage on the national map.
Whether you buy that argument in Rudy's case or not, the simple fact is that in the real world in 2008, Romney has a similar problem - and with some of the same voters - due to his religion. If anything, it's become a bigger problem with religious conservatives as a result of Romney's history of recent and prominent flip-flops on social issues: Mitt has had no choice but to tell people to trust him in politics because of his religious convictions - while simultaneously telling them not to worry about the details of his religious convictions because all that matters is how he translates them into political convictions. If he had shown more consistent support for the political results Christian conservatives seek to bring about, he might not be in the same fix.
We have a lot of scraps of evidence - a poll here, an anecdote there - suggesting that there may be a bunch of people out there who just won't pull the lever for Romney for no other reason than his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Let's consider a few polling data points:
*A Pew Center poll from mid-2007 puts the numbers of those who are at least reluctant to vote for a Mormon at 25% of Republicans and 41% of regular churchgoing white evangelical Protestant Republicans.
*NPR collected six national polls from 2006 ranging from 14% to 53% having reservations about voting for a Mormon.
*Pollster Mark Mellman: "With polls measuring anti-Mormon sentiment anywhere from 20 percent to 60 percent, I'm not sure whether to despair more about our prejudices or the validity of our polls."
Romney's favorability ratings, where you might find prejudice against him to be buried, have been up and down depending on the poll, the date and the jurisdiction, but he has persistently shown higher unfavorability ratings than you would expect from a candidate with relatively low national name ID, and I believe it's only in the past six weeks or so has his favorability rating been regularly above his unfavorables.
And the anecdotal evidence, just to scratch the surface:
Now, fair-minded people can and do disagree about how much validity to give these polls, and I'm sure polls can be cited going the other way. I suspect that the number would shrink somewhat on protracted public examination of the issue (Mellman's Hill column notes that the number of people refusing to vote for a Catholic dropped in half between 1958 and 1960). But here's what worries me: people don't like to admit to their prejudices. Prejudice in the voting booth may be overstated, but we know enough of human nature to know that if X percent of people say they won't vote for a candidate of a particular faith or race or gender, the actual number has to be higher.
I can't for the life of me figure why the people who argue that Rudy is unelectable due to potential defections from Christian conservatives aren't similarly worried about Romney. And unlike Rudy, Romney isn't going to reach out and bring in a whole lot of people who didn't vote for Bush in 2004; he just doesn't offer anything all that new or different, and more blood can't be squeezed from the stone of Mormon voters - only in Nevada (6.96% of the population) and maybe Arizona (5.97%) is the Mormon bloc large enough to potentially make a difference in a swing state. So unless Romney can limit the potential losses from unease with his faith, he's in even worse shape than he'd be already due to his other problems as a candidate. I wouldn't let this concern over religion bother me if I thought Romney was a tremendous candidate, since he'd be able to overcome it. But when you start with the many flaws Romney already has, as discussed in the first four installments of this series, this is one more thing to worry about with Romney that we don't need.
All of which increasingly convinces me that Romney isn't Mormonism's JFK, but more like its Al Smith, the first Catholic nominee who lost to Hoover in 1928. Now, I can fully understand why members of Romney's own faith community may well want to see him nominated in the hopes of breaking down barriers, and may see it as preferable to run Romney and lose than get behind someone else. There's a real hunger out there to get that last stamp of legitimacy on the LDS community in this country, a hunger not dissimilar to what Hillary, Obama, Huckabee and Richardson are playing to in their own ways. But this election is too important, with too much at stake, to expect the rest of us to sign on to that venture. Send us a better messenger, and we'll carry that message then.
The trouble with Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate in 2008 isn't just any one thing; it's the whole package, and specifically the fact that he has a weakness to undermine every case that could be made for him. He can't run on his record; it's too sparse. He can't run on his principles, which are elusive and ever-shifting. He can't run on his personality, which comes off as overly programmed. He can't run on his faith, which is unpopular. He can't run on his biography, which starts with being born into a wealthy and influential family and encounters no particularly compelling adversity along the way. He can't run on his platform, which ranges from an immigration plan that was clearly designed just to get him through the primaries to a health care plan that, like Bush's prescription drug plan, is basically just HillaryCare Lite. He can't run on his fortune; the Democratic field can outspend anyone this year. He can point to his record as a businessman, but after 8 years of a CEO/MBA president, a CEO Vice President and a Cabinet stocked with CEOs from many different industries, it's hard to convince the average voter who is disaffected with Bush that what the Bush Administration really needed was more businessmen. What's left?
Romney has more than amply demonstrated that, however personally honest and decent a man he may be, he is a thoroughgoing political opportunist, and neither remotely good at hiding that fact nor possessed of counterbalancing virtues as a candidate. The transparency of that opportunism, combined with a thin resume of public leadership, minimal foreign policy experience, the lack of an identifiable core of beliefs or rationales for running, and a pronounced tendency towards the lamest sort of campaign gimmickry, not only raises questions about what kind of president he might in theory be, but also compellingly demonstrates that he would be a disaster as a general election candidate. If we nominate him, we will lose.
Argue all you want about which candidate is the best and who would benefit the most from a Romney defeat in the primaries, but of this I am sure: 2008 does not end with President-elect Mitt Romney. The endgame of Romney's strategy is the nomination, and we should give that nomination to someone who is better situated to do something with it. The sooner we get him off the stage, the faster we can focus on the candidates who are worthy of our time and attention. Romney has wasted far too much of both.