Thursday, October 18, 2007

Romney: No Jack Kennedy

I want to do all I can to encourage the Republicans to nominate Mitt Romney for president in 2008. I’m trying to figure out the best way to move them further in that direction.

Should I simply advocate his supposed virtues, hoping that some out there would mistake me for someone who seeks the best for the GOP? Should I issue pretend warnings to my lefty brethren and sistren about what a formidable candidate he would make, knowing that my fear will be perceived as his strength in the tea-leaves-reading right-wing chattering class? Or should I simply hold my breath and cross my fingers, passively watching the inevitable Republican train wreck, as the entire party drives off the cliff in slow motion?

I want to see Romney as the GOP nominee for several selfish but legitimate reasons. Most important, Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat will wipe the floor with him, resulting in not only a landslide in the electoral vote, but also bringing a possibly filibuster-proof Senate along with her/him. But I also appreciate the sheer entertainment value of this impossibly pliable construction of a candidate staying with us all the way through next year, his firm jaw jutting into the wind of a world that is poised to deliver his historical thumping. That Romney and those around him think they can get away with the sort of cynical manipulation of what he "believes" to fit the doomed expectations of his "base" is evidence of the desperation of a GOP grasping at disappearing straws.

Romney is the ultimate Candidate as Product, polished and consulted within an inch of his vapid life. In this month’s Harper’s – my favorite dead-tree magazine by far – writer Ken Silverstein (link, but subcription needed -- just go buy the damn thing) takes us inside the Romney construct, exposing the campaign for the deliberate lie that it is. Reports Silverstein: "...[T]he task of reformulating and repackaging the Romney brand—from the moderate Republican governor of the most liberal state in the Union to a red-meat social conservative and heir to Reagan—has been entrusted to an army of consultants far larger than that of any of his challengers...Romney’s campaign has employed more than a hundred different consultants, making combined payments to them of at least $11 million—roughly three times the amount spent by John McCain or Rudy Giuliani."

This sort of bottom-up candidate creation was once the stuff of scandal and outrage. Now, it’s expected that any candidate for either party has to be phonied-up to some extent – it’s the "smart" thing to do. But Romney appears to have taken it to a new level, filling his empty suit with the kind of enthusiasm and smarmy acting talent that Junior Bush could never muster. He lives in the rarified air where notions like the strength of your convictions are for suckers. The base wants me to stop stem cell research on to-be-discarded-anyway embryos? Fine. My wife has MS and might benefit from the research? What’s your point?

While Romney’s political positions are as flexible as last week’s poll, his personal religious convictions are sacrosanct and surround him with the eerie glow of the Just. He’s of the Mormon faith, which is an interesting version of Christianity to say the least. Since all religion necessarily strains the credulity of non-believers or different believers, it’s hard – not to mention politically suicidal – to venture an opinion on how whack the Mormon faith really is. I mean, I grew up Catholic, with the virgin birth and all that. But apparently other whack religious figures – the egotistical evangelicals who have succeeded in hijacking much of the Republican social agenda – who you think would appreciate Romney’s wild-eyed "faith" instead have some sort of discomfort with the fact that he is a Mormon-flavored Christian rather than some other variety that, as just one example, doesn't believe the Garden of Eden was in Missouri.

As entertaining as it is to see these various sects sniping at each other over dogmatic principles, it has been regularly suggested that Romney could get the "Mormon thing" behind him by making a speech like John Kennedy made during his campaign in 1960, when his Catholicism became an issue (no surprise, given that his opponent was the dirt-slinging non-practicing Quaker Richard Nixon).

There are a couple of reasons why that sort of event wouldn’t work for Romney. For one thing, some of the major tenets of the Mormon faith make it a little more difficult to separate the believer from the prospective president. Mormons believe in an expansive form of "American exceptionalism" – that we live in a special location reserved by god, making it a bit harder for Romney to separate that religious belief from his role as president of the special location.

But, if you look at what Kennedy actually said to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, it’s even clearer that Romney – or anyone else in the race in either party – could never make the same assurances:
  • "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish--where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source--where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials--and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."
How quaint, really. "the separation of church and state is would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials..." Wow, was there ever really such a time?

Instead of the clear-headed sense of the role of government articulated so gracefully by Kennedy, we now have candidates falling all over each other telling us how their faith informs their proposed public service. The only criticism of religion in public life is whether faith means you adhere to a rigid regime of personal behavior and public morality that you want enforced by government or whether faith means caring for those less fortunate.

Could Romney really make the same promise that JFK made in his speech? With a straight face, I mean?


Anonymous said...

Mike: you make some good points here--how would we trust in the strength of Romney's convictions or those of other candidates? But in all honesty, I think candidates on both sides of the aisle suffer from the same problems. Consider hillary's statements on the war, for example. Now it may well be that she was "dooped" by the village idiot from Texas, but does that make her any more acceptable? And when Obama or Edwards makes some policy statement many will assume--rightly or wrongly--that he is just taking his order from one of the many special interest groups of the left. We have them on the right too.

Interestingly, I was reflecting on Emerson today who warns us that a "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." And yet we are now in an era where any change of position will be attacked as a flip-flop. So what can a politician of either party do? In this political environment it is not shocking that Romney has spent and spent on consultants. Every candidate has his $400 haircut, I guess.

And while it is fine--if a little disrespectful--for you to refer to religious beliefs as "whack" you don't really provide any reason why Romney wouldn't be able to separate his religious beliefs while Hillary, Obama, or Edwards could. Most Americans see America as an exceptional place, too. If most Americans see it as you do, shouldn't they likewise be suspicious of athiest candidates too?

In the end whatever president emerges from the coming bloodbath will be someone who has survived one hot cauldron. I hope they will be able to understand the position of special interest groups as subordinate voices. At least for a few days....

Mike Plaisted said...

There is a difference in the use of consultants. Hillary and Obama use consultants to get the message they already have out in the most effective manner. Romney is using consultants to develop whatever will work with the nut-right base of the party (see his message today, taking aim at single mothers). There is a difference between massaging your message and making up any old message that might work. Hillary and Obama have a message, conviction and ambition. Romney has only ambition.

And, I'm sorry if I didn't make it clear how much I don't respect Mormonism -- I kind of pulled my punches there. I am not one of those who think you should "respect" religion or religious people just because it is religion. From what I understand of the teachings and history, it all seems a bit nuts to me, above and beyond all the usual Sky God stuff. I am of the belief that religion has brought far more pain and death to the world than good. I think religion generally gets more respect than it deserves.

And I think the wackier a religion gets, the more I would question the judgement of someone who believes in it. I think if you really believe some guy in the U.S. in the 1820s found "golden plates" and decided that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, I think your judgement is not particularly sound.

illusory tenant said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
illusory tenant said...

Not to mention the magic underpants.

Anonymous said...

Aw, c'mon, the Mormon tighty whities are full of religious meaning. But do the Strangites -- the Mormon dissident sect still in Wisconsin -- support Mitt? Or maybe not, because he's part of the Utah group?

We do need to recognize, as the strange story of the Strangites tells, that Mormons were persecuted terribly for their beliefs. That understandably led to a worrisome exceptionality and insularity, although not owing to magic undies.

The religions responsible for that persecution were the mainstreamers. So I would be more worried about the Lutherans and Baptists. . . .

Anonymous said...


Should we respect homosexuals because they have a sexuality? If so, what is the difference?