Should Mitt Even Want a “Moment”?

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Another thought (shorter than last time) about the recent Newsweek cover story on Mormonism in America today, and Mitt Romney’s–or any other prominent member of my church’s–place in it all. Several writers have taken different types of exception to Walter Kirn’s presentation of Mormonism as a religion which has, despite (or perhaps because of) its arguably marginal and often controversial presence in American public life, somehow found the “secret to success” and is ” having its moment”. The debate is over whether Kirn, and all those involved in putting together the package of features, misunderstood or put the wrong spin on the undeniable fact that Mormon culture has, in many (though not all) ways, greatly aligned itself to a certain, relatively successful slice of American life: business-oriented, culturally conservative, non-offensively Christian, practical and pragmatic, accepting of (a certain amount of) pluralism, patriotic and, to a degree, quite self-affirming. While this process of adaption has been going on for quite a while–so much so that it has also given rise to a concurrent process of retrenchment/backlash, and perhaps we even are even seeing a backlash to the backlash within the church–recognizing and addressing ourselves to that adaptation is still relatively recent; I’ve suggested that you can see it explicitly in the differences between the last several presidents of our church, while Matt Bowman recently suggested that you can see it implicitly in the generation gap between Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman (though I had my doubts about that). These are good, curious debates to have–but I would ask something slightly tangential. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that in our public persona, our susceptibility to conventional American satire, and in the candidates we are producing for high political office, we really are experiencing a “Mormon Moment”. My question: should Romney (and Huntsman, though he’s less of a player at this point) be happy about that?

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. When Romney traveled to Texas during his previous run for the Republican nomination, and gave an important speech making a case for why a Mormon can every bit a participant in making the case for the “common creed of moral convictions” which many Christian conservatives have made central to the aims of the Republican party, he quite consciously echoed John F. Kennedy’s speech, given under similar circumstances during his campaign for the presidency in 1960. Romney’s line “If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest”, and Kennedy’s line “Whatever issue may come before me as president….I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates”, essentially say the same thing: that the person speaking is a candidate who approaches religion, and whom makes use of his religion (to whatever extent he does), solely in the context of discerning what is the interest of the whole nation, not any one sectarian part of it. That is, fundamentally, a classical liberal statement, one that would serve equally well to defend against attacks upon both Catholics and Mormons within America’s liberal democracy. And yet, such a liberal statement cannot truly serve Romney as it did Kennedy…because Romney has to appeal to Republican primary voters who don’t agree with it. And the more “mainstream” Mormonism may appear to be becoming, the more Romney’s capacity to connect with voters who have moral complaints with the results which they see that classical liberal answer as having given the United States–a capacity which is already made difficult by the baggage which Mormonism carries amongst many Americans–becomes that much more complicated.

This is not to claim that Republican primary voters, particularly in Iowa or South Carolina, are philosophical reactionaries and theocrats, who view their every vote solely through a sectarian prism. Obviously they are not–especially right now, when it appears that the 2011-2012 election cycle is going to be far more focused on fiscal issues than moral ones. Nonetheless, the fact remains that there are a great many Republican primary and caucus goers who will want to be certain that their chosen candidate isn’t entirely mainstream. Of course, they won’t want a maniac or a zealot…but neither, perhaps, are they necessarily going to want someone whose beliefs, at least according to Newsweek magazine, when it comes to government or the arts or the mass media or the best-seller lists or popular culture generally, “rocks!”

Over the years I, like many other members of the Mormon church, have been fascinated by the Romney candidacy, as no doubt millions of Catholics were fascinated by Kennedy’s run for office. That fascination has many sources, I suppose, but none more so than this: that Romney has to walk–and has himself chosen to walk–a very thin tightrope. On the one hand, America has changed since 1960: the classical liberal answers that a half-century ago were mostly accepted as unquestionably true when it comes the maintenance of American democracy have become subject to serious critique and challenge. Large numbers of conservatives–and more importantly, a sometimes-controlling faction of the Republican party–look instead for someone who is capable of challenging the secular excesses of American democracy (though usually they don’t put it that way), a candidate who will speak of America in religious and moral terms, and appeal to values they believe (with some justification) that liberals have disregarded. On the other hand, these conservative voters, expecting to hear something other than classically liberal answers, may have trouble hearing such a culturally conservative and religious message from a Mormon…and the best way for a Mormon to insist upon their place in our democracy and to issue such a message (assuming they don’t want to get into the kind of pretentious philosophy I recommended Romney try years ago) is to employ exactly those Kennedyesque claims. It’s a puzzle, and Romney has committed himself to trying to figure it out. Obviously, religious “moments” were a good deal easier to deal with 50 years ago.

Comments

  1. Russell,
    I think that you’ve correctly threaded the needle of Romney’s problem here, which is why he never should have shifted to the right in the first place. There simply isn’t going to be a point of mutual understanding with the Christian right, not where political power is at stake. There is too much suspicion.

    That’s why I think that Moderates (like Huntsman and Mass-era Romney) have a better chance of making a political splash. And, frankly, I think that a moderate will have a better chance against Obama than a hard-core conservative.

  2. I agree with John. He should have stayed moderate as he was in Massachusetts. Huntsman is shifting hard right too, sadly.

  3. Huntsman never was a moderate. He was somewhat libertarian on social issues but I’ve not seen him backing off on that. He accepted global warming (which many conservatives do as a matter of fact, regardless of what Rush Limbaugh thinks) but has backed away from cap and trade. (A good thing to do in my book – but I wouldn’t call that turning right since he appears to justify it on pragmatic grounds of performance) He said he’d have voted for Ryan’s plan but he’s always been highly fiscally conservative so I don’t see a change there. He hasn’t changed his views on immigration from what I can see. (Maybe I just missed it)

    I think people see him turning right simply because he was unfairly painted as a McCain or Bush styled moderate when he never was. The reason some right wingers don’t like him is because he’s for civil unions for gays (but against gay marriage), accepts global warming, and thinks more than enforcement is necessary to deal with the illegal immigration issue. Sorry. If that’s being a moderate then folks are just getting nutso.

  4. Clark,
    Right now, the nutsos have hijacked the Party, so yes, that does make Huntsman appear moderate. Of course, that’s on a relative scale, but that’s all we ever have to work with.

  5. John C:

    Specifically, who in the R leadership are the “nutsos”? Methinks thou dost speak out of ignorance.

  6. Jessica says:

    It’s not the Republican leadership that is “nutso.” It’s right-wing media darlings, who animate a certain segment of the Republican party that is significantly farther to the right than the leadership.

  7. David Paul Kuhn wrote an interesting article for RealClearPolitics.com recently where he noted that an even higher percentage of Democrats disapprove of Mormons generally than Republicans do. See http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/06/06/can_a_mormon_become_president__110098.html.

    I think it’s highly questionable to suggest that Romney could have done fine if only he hadn’t taken up with the conservative rabble. The fact is that, for the most part, the entire nation doesn’t like us and that dislike crosses the political spectrum. Romney’s religion problems will not end just because he takes the GOP nomination.

  8. I don’t think it’s accurate to call them more conservative. That suggests it’s a political ideology when most of it isn’t. The main problem is that a lot of people are filled with rage and that angry populism is dominating. (There was a similar problem amongst Democrats not so long ago) Unfortunately these guys are throwing elections by getting bad candidates running and also really don’t have much by way of implementable solutions. Often they just have basic facts wrong too.

    The Republicans should be dominating right now – the fact they aren’t says more about this populist tendency undermining the party than anything.

  9. I’m happy to drop the conservative label. The problem is that the Republican leadership (whoever they are (I think that the RNC chairman is someone with an unusual name from Wisconsin)) have been following the cues of the Right-wing media for years. The Right-wing media does a much better job of articulating a stance and of motivating the base than the Republican leadership (this might be a reference to the populism discussed above). So, no matter who is in charge officially, the Right-wing media appears to have been driving the politics of the Republicans for years. I’ve seen nothing to lead me to believe that this isn’t the case and until someone on the right actively stands up to Limbaugh et al, I’m still going to believe it. Certainly McCain didn’t get along with those guys, but they certainly never really threw their support behind him.

    I am in Utah. A place where, based on the resolutions at the conventions and the activities that consume the state legislature, the radical right-wing appears to be in dominance. Since the state legislature appears controlled by the the radical right-wingers, I imagine that districts will be shifted to make it easier to nominate and elect radical right wingers. I don’t believe that my state is alone in this. Certainly, there are some states out there that are in the same situation on the left. Na ja.

    As to whether the left is more open to Mormonism, I think you have a good point. I think that they would have been prior to Prop 8, but I think that if someone could convince them that they are to the left of the church stance on Gay Marriage, people on the left would be more likely to be open.

    This Mormon Moment will likely pass as the other did. Romney is not likely to get out of the primary process and neither is Huntsman. So this sort of hand wringing is all moot at this time I think.

  10. John C and Jessica:

    Let’s be clear about the media here. With the exception of the Murdoch empire the rest of the media lean left– with much of it leaning far left. The media loves the extremes on both sides because it makes for higher ratings than if they played it “down the middle” (typically defined as left of center). Given the desire for the extremes the guys like Paul, Palin, and Gingrich get a disproportionate amount of coverage. The Dems and the media would love for one of those candidates to win the nomination. The irony is that when actual Rs are polled the extreme candidates do very poorly. For example, in a recent Gallup poll Palin’s favorability was 49% but when asked if she should be the nominee she only drew 16% support. Romney, in the same poll, polled 49% and 47% respectively. And lets not forget the poll released Thursday that shows Romney beating Obama in a head-to-head contest. He was the ONLY R to do so.

    The lazy Left trope is that the Republican Party has been taken over by the “nutsos” but wouldn’t you think that if the nutsos had taken over that there would be some nutsos in the leadership? Part of the narrative also includes the inane claim that that Talk Radio did not support McCain. While that may have been true in the primaries that was absolutely not true for the general election. If you think for a moment that Limbaugh, or Hannity, or Hewitt, et al pulled the lever for Obama you are more out of touch with reality than the groupies standing vigil outside Graceland awaiting the return of The King. Again, that narrative makes for good copy but is so far from reality that repeating it just makes one look ignorant.

    Gingrich is done. Palin won’t run because then she would no longer be able to fund family vacations through her PAC. Huckabee has already retired. Bachman is running for VP. These are the darlings of the far right and none of them are in the mix. At this point it’s a two man race between Romney and Pawlenty. Pawlenty, unlike Huckabee, has too much class to make Mormonism an issue so the Moment is over.

  11. PaulM,
    Murdoch controls talk radio? Who knew?

    Setting that aside, if the conservative base doesn’t require pandering to, then why is Romney pandering? This is confusing to me. Who could say, “I’m a Mormon, I consider that Christian, I vote in the manner that I consider best” and be done with it, but instead he is spending a lot of time trying to appeal to a demographic that you are saying has no say in the party. Certainly, he hasn’t gone whole hog libertarian, but he is using a states’ rights argument to justify his health care system and he has long been mimicking neocon positions on foreign policy.

    Again,
    If the leadership of the Republican party would ever, ever stand up to the talk show folk, I’d come closer to believing you. But, for now, Murdoch et al seem to drive their positions. I don’t doubt that that is the lazy media position (left or right) but that also appears to be the most publicly accurate. If there are real leaders in the Republican party who are not busy blowing smoke up the bottoms of Murdoch et al, please direct me to them, as I am much interested in such folk.

  12. The problem is that the Republican establishment is amazingly weak after Bush, after the big loses during Bush’s administration (such that there aren’t really many mainstream leaders), and then the large recession motivated those more angry than thoughtful. After Bush’s term finally ended the Republican party ended up largely in a civil war and about all that unified them was being against Obama. With a lot of the opposition frankly being pretty silly (and some being little more sour grapes by trying to do to Obama what they perceived Democrats did to Bush). There really hasn’t yet been anything like a consolidation and the tea party has within primaries ridiculously over-influence due to the fact most people have lives and don’t have time to do all the things many states require. So they can trump candidates as a practical matter.

    What the tea party hasn’t yet figured out is that they are a small minority and don’t have the influence they think they have. Despite a few embarrassments last year (O’Donnell and Angle) the narrative is still one of dominance. So tea party activists don’t think they need to come to any agreement. Plus a lot of their beliefs are frankly outright fantasies (i.e. the dream that defaulting on loans will have no practical effects) While Obama is ridiculously weak, look to the tea party to pull defeat from the mouth of victory. Then starting in November 2012 there will be a strong anti-tea party backlash and the establishment will regain power.

  13. Mark D. says:

    Since the state legislature appears controlled by the the radical right-wingers

    What you call “radical right wing” happens to be the consensus position of the entire Republican party as of late. Utah isn’t so different. If you doubt that, compare the Utah Republican party platform to the national Republican party platform sometime. The section on immigration policy is a good example. Somewhat more conservative than the national plank, but not much.

  14. Paul I agree it’s between Pawlenty & Romney with Huntsman having a small chance. The rest don’t. Huntsman is primarily getting name recognition for 2016 but he really does have a chance once people hear him speak.

    A lot will honestly depend upon how the votes break and how some of the other candidates act to get votes from the leaders. I suspect this will be like 2008 and take a while to decide.

  15. I’m not sure party platforms tell the whole tale Mark. I honestly think the Utah caucus system is badly dysfunctional – especially for those of us who might be able to vote but can’t spare the time to caucus. It eliminates candidates before the rest of us even have a say – typically by well motivated activists.

    Of course the real problem ultimately is voter apathy. However now that I have a family with young kids honestly being able to take off even a whole saturday is wishful thinking. Otherwise I’d become more involved. Yet even the primary where Chris Canon was defeated despite his popularity shows that ultimately voter apathy is the primary problem. We can’t even get people to vote let alone caucus. So at a certain point one has to say people get what they deserve. If they don’t like the far right dominating Utah they ought become more involved with the Republican party or at a minimum at least vote in the primaries. (That primary reportedly had the lowest voter turnout in history)

  16. Clark, it is extremely unusual for any legitimately strong candidate not to make it to a primary. The situation with Bennett last year is the exception that proves the rule. Usually, one relatively moderate and one relatively conservative candidate makes it into the primary in any major contested race. Cannon v. Chaffetz, Leavitt v. Eyre, Bennett v. Cannon, and on and on. Utah is not in the habit of electing strong conservatives to statewide or federal office – not until recently in any case.

    Until recently, a moderate could usually be counted on to win the primary as well. Bennett, Leavitt, Chris Cannon, Huntsman all relatively moderate “establishment” style Republicans. The election of moderates has probably partly changed due to a change to closed primaries. No more avowed Democrats choosing the Republican nominee anymore, unless they change registration of course.

    Also, the “far right” doesn’t even come close to dominating Utah caucuses, conventions, or primaries. Not unless you consider Jason Chaffetz or Mike Lee card carrying members of the “far” right. Both won contested primaries, Chaffetz by commanding margins. How exactly do you do that if you are out of the party mainstream? Chaffetz won the primary against Cannon by a slightly higher margin than he won in convention. 60-40% roughly. Sounds representative to me.

    As far as the time required to participate in a caucus goes, I am not sympathetic. One evening, usually two hours or less

  17. As far as the turnout goes, anyone who doesn’t bother to show up to a party primary must have concluded that either candidate is equally acceptable to them. The convention process does not send loons to the primary or the general election. It reliably produces good, strong Republican candidates all the time. About the only time a relatively weak candidate makes it to the general election is when running against a strong opponent from the other party. I can hardly remember the names of all the candidates nominated to run against Matheson in the second congressional district.

  18. Usually, one relatively moderate and one relatively conservative candidate makes it into the primary in any major contested race. Cannon v. Chaffetz

    You think Cannon was moderate? Seriously?

  19. Mark,
    Chaffetz and Lee are both, at least, attempting to appeal to the far right. Lee is particular did all he could to appeal to them. Whether you think that was an act of political cynicism or of sincere agreement, Lee definitely courted their vote and aligned himself with their ideals (as far as possible). I haven’t followed his voting record in the Senate, but I did follow his campaign closely. He courted the people who voted him in.

    All the Utah districts are currently gerrymandered to get Republican candidates and that usually results in more doctrinaire candidates. They will only get more gerrymandered as the next redistricting takes place, due to voter apathy and real political cynicism and power-mongering on the hill.

    As to Chaffetz and Lee, they are the loons that disprove the rule. Utah County would send a potted plant if it talked about cutting the budget, sleeping in its office, and states’ rights. The Lee election I am still too disgusted by.

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