With all the recent news about presidential candidate Mitt Romney there has been a surge in news on the Mormons too. A PBS documentary, 60 Minutes special, and Time Magazine report are three major examples of the additional attention. In my view, in each case the reporting served at best to bring increased exposure to the Church and to Romney, but at worst only furthered general public misunderstanding and prejudice about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Currently, on national polls of likely Republican primary voters Romney is garnering support from between 10-15% of those polled. Some polls indicate that he is slowly rising, but they also show that, in many cases, he comes in behind Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich, neither of whom have announced candidacy for the presidency in '08. Now, this could be good news for Mitt if these candidates don't enter the race, which may be the case. However, even in polls where these men are removed from the mix Romney's numbers stand fairly constant, and still below front runners Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. It is true that there are still 9 months or so until the first primaries, it is also true that approximately 20% of likely primary voters are still uncertain, and it is true that Romney is doing an excellent job with fundraising. Also, in Iowa and New Hampshire, certainly two of the most important primary states and places where Romney has done considerable campaigning and TV ads, recent polls suggest Romney has a nice lead. Surely there is much to be optimistic about in the Romney camp, but if I were part of the campaign I would be looking at some concerns.
Romney's campaign presents some dilemmas for the typical Republican primary voter who is generally staunchly conservative and certainly more to the right than to the center. His apparent "flip-flopping" for political gain on matters such as abortion have many concerned. I must admit, it bothers me too. Of course, Mitt uses the appropriate political verbage to explain his position. It doesn't bother me so much that he's changed his position, or even that his "previous" position was one I disagree with. I personally think he has always held his current position on the matter. What bothers me is that he has seemingly adjusted positions on very sensitive, strongly-held issues to get votes in Massachusetts races. But, putting that aside the other two major contenders in the Republican field present just as much, if not more trouble to social conservatives. They too, perhaps like most politicians, are guilty of some adjustment for the purpose of votes. In terms of actual practice of faith and family values - not just talking about them - Mitt Romney is unmatched among the top tier Republicans. Furthermore, Romney's record of leadership in business, the Olympics, and state government is undeniably remarkable. His defense of the traditional family in the face of liberal Massachusetts justices and state legislators was impressive to say the least. Romney is a very strong candidate for president of the United States. He is likeable, articulate, strong on leadership and character, armed with innovative ideas, referred to as "handsome", and an outsider of Washington. So, what are the obstacles? Primary voters are not really excited about any of the 3 contenders. Perhaps of any of the candidates Romney should be the one to identify with the voters and pull ahead.
Certainly McCain and Giuliani have the help of name recognition going for them. But I think we all recognize there is more to it than that. Recent polls indicate that up to 35% of Americans would hesitate to vote for a Mormon for president. Herein lies Romney's most formidable challenge - he is a Mormon. Thus far he has generally tried to skirt around, side step, and basically avoid the issue. He continues to use the same response to questions over and over again. It goes something like this, "I think the American people want a man of faith at the head of this country." Now, I'm not suggesting that Romney has downplayed the fact that he has faith but he has certainly been on the defensive about his particular BRAND of faith. The media and public have brought the issue to him. He hasn't shied away from stating that he is a member of the LDS church but he rarely goes beyond that. He is certainly capable of articulate response. For some reason it appears that his team is in denial that it IS a real issue for the voters. Should it be an issue? Probably not, but current reality says it is, especially in a Republican primary full of Evangelicals, some of whom still believe that so-called "Mormonism" (we would say the restored gospel of Jesus Christ) is synonymous with Satanic cultism.
I really like Mitt, although I haven't decided yet who I will support because I like McCain too. I would like to see him do well, partly because he is a latter-day saint but mostly because he is such a great candidate. Given the immediate scenario that lays before us I have a few suggestions for Mitt, not that he or anyone else closely associated to his camp would ever read this humble blog, just to throw in my two cents.
1. Given that there is an evidenced bias in the American public against Mormons running for president and given that the media is continually raising the issue, and furthermore given that their attempts to discuss and portray the Church in light of Romney's candidacy have been poor, I think Mitt needs to take control of the issue. He needs to be on the offensive about his religion not on the defensive.
2. Romney should address his faith somewhere on his website. I'm not talking about a missionary discussion but rather a brief account of what his faith means to him and his family in general terms, perhaps recounting his involvement in the church as a missionary and lay teacher. Here he should make it clear that the LDS church is in no way promoting his candidacy and that he does not represent the church in any official capacity, just like any of the other candidates and their religious affiliations. There should be a discussion about other politicians serving across the nation who are members of the church and the wide variety of political positions AND ideology they hold - Harry Reid, Orrin Hatch, Bob Bennett, and Gordon Smith in the Senate; Mike Leavitt as Secretary of Health and Human Services and hundreds of others in the executive branch; a dozen or so representatives in the House; a couple of Governors; many federal judges; and countless state and local legislators, mayors, and councilmen/women. Included in this discussion should be references and links to official church statements that express political neutrality and explicitly note that LDS people involved in the political process are not beholden to church leaders or official church positions in their decisions. I recognize this could be sticky and could have the danger of making too big of a deal of things, but I believe people are curious. Far better to hear it from Romney and the Church than from Time Magazine.
3. I really think Romney needs to take the JFK approach and deliver a speech on this subject. JFK gave his speech and even responded to questions from Protestant religious leaders involved in politics. Timing and location of this kind of speech would be very important. It ought to be as high profile as possible to reach out to all Americans but at the same time especially target those with the most concern. Perhaps Romney could make reference to his personal faith in Jesus Christ, and his adherence to the Bible, but his respect for all faith traditions citing the constitution and the 11th Article of Faith. He should be bold in declaring how his faith guides his political life and how it does not. Here you would expect his answer to be very similar to that of all people of faith who serve in public office. Religious bigotry and misunderstanding could be mentioned, JFK as the first Catholic president should be used as an example. Doctrinal differences should never be used as a litmus test for public office. Some of the discussion indicated in suggestion #2 should also be outlined. Basically, the speech needs to relieve some of the curiosity that exists and reassure the American people that there is nothing to be scared of in voting for a Mormon president. Mitt Romney will not be a "puppet" of the President of the Church. He will not try to convert the American people or other nations of the world. I HIGHLY doubt he will even be as open about his faith as President Bush, which is something that I actually like about the president.
4. Finally, while I think Mitt needs to reach out to the religious right, it really kind of bugs me that the Republican party is so beholden to it. I don't think that it is just the Evangelicals who are curious and apprehensive about Romeny's faith so I don't think these suggestions would only serve to gain their support. Numbers I have seen indicate that the religious right makes up about 30% of the Republican voting block, no doubt a considerable chunk. Nevertheless, that leaves 70% of the block to concentrate on. I don't think catering to the religious right will be the key, nor should it be the strategy in this election as it has been in 2000 and particularly 2004. Romeny's team needs to find a way to connect with significant groups within that 70% block. I think he will naturally receive a significant portion of that 30% block anyway because given the candidates there is not any one contender that really appeals to that group. They will be split, which I personally see as a good thing. It is no better for the Republican party to be beholden to the far right than the Democratic party to be beholden to the far left.
I'm certain that the heat is only going to increase for Mitt Romney regarding his religion, particularly if he continues to rise in the polls. Going on the offensive will serve to deflate some of the intrigue of the issue and allow him to focus on his strengths in the campaign.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
A new location to call home means a new person to cut my hair. It is more difficult now to go to Sister and get a very good haircut without a fee (although I like to offer a small donation). Without this luxury I am forced to pay 15 bucks for an in-and-out-of-the-chair-in-five-minutes lousy job. Of course, we go through the small talk and the concluding sales pitch for a number of shampoos and gels that "insert vitamins into your hair follicles for a more healthy head of hair." Pardon my cynical skepticism, but come on now! Perhaps I am just bitter because, in her effort to sell me her products, this very tactful cosmotologist made the comment that stands as the title of this post! Is it really that bad? Am I balding? I think I am headed for a self-image crisis! :)
Posted by C.J. at 4:14 PM