A Mormon in the White House?, by Hugh Hewitt (Regnery, 256 pp., $27.95)
In Michael Lewis’s book The Blind Side, a white evangelical Christian businessman who’s trying to help a black athlete get into college marvels at the efficiency and helpfulness of the administrators at Brigham Young University, which offers online courses for student jocks. Half jokingly, the businessman—who has never before had dealings with any institution run by Mormons—tells Lewis: “The Mormons may be going to hell, but they are really nice people.”
That offhand remark perfectly encapsulates Mitt Romney’s challenge as he strives to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. The former Massachusetts governor, who is now perhaps America’s best-known member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has a personal and professional resumé that most candidates would envy. But he also has a big problem: polls show that a substantial minority of Americans, and particularly Christian evangelicals, would balk at voting for a Mormon.
Is that unfair? Syndicated talk-show host and religious conservative Hugh Hewitt thinks so, and that’s the subject of his timely new book on Romney, A Mormon in the White House? Hewitt is an unabashed Romney fan, and the book is his attempt to use his credentials within cultural-conservative circles to make the case for the former governor in a field in which the other two likely contenders—Senator John McCain and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani—will have a hard time appealing to the party’s most conservative elements.
Hewitt begins by reminding us how much American politics has changed since the mid-1960s, when Romney’s father, Michigan governor George Romney, was considered presidential material. Few made anything much of the elder Romney’s religion back then. In The Republican Establishment, published in 1967, David Broder and Stephen Hess described Mormonism simply as a creed rooted in the American West, as “patriotically American” as “a rodeo or county fair.” Some even considered Romney’s religion a potential advantage. John F. Kennedy worried about facing him in the 1964 presidential race because the governor, following Mormon tenets, didn’t smoke, drink, or swear.
The political landscape has shifted since then in two ways that work to Mitt Romney’s disadvantage. On the one hand, Christian fundamentalists, some of whom consider Mormonism to be a cult, are a more powerful and cohesive political force than they were 40 years ago, while on the other, a secularized mainstream media is more wary of any candidate whose strict religious adherence makes him culturally conservative. Romney, in other words, must bear the skepticism that the media reserves for devoutly religious candidates, but without gaining much benefit within the electorate.
Hewitt hopes to convince cultural conservatives to give Romney an open-minded hearing, though he doubts that the mainstream media will. Hewitt fesses up that he “love[s] Mormons and count[s] many among my friends.” Echoing Romney, he argues that Christians who want to evaluate Mormonism should do so by judging the way its faithful live. “My faith believes in family,” he quotes Romney as saying. “It believes in serving one’s neighbor and one’s community. . . . I’m one aspiring to be a good person as defined by biblical Judeo-Christian standards that our society would recognize.”
If Christians can get past their reservations about Mormonism, Hewitt argues—and he quotes a number of prominent Christians who have—they will see an enormously appealing candidate. Hewitt runs through Romney’s many achievements: graduation from Harvard’s joint J.D./M.B.A. program; service at one of America’s foremost consulting firms, Bain Consultants; the formation of Bain Capital, a venture capital firm that made him wealthy; a stint as head of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic games, which he rescued from disarray; and a term as the Republican governor of a very Democratic state. In all, it’s a resumé that displays as much managerial and executive experience, as well as legislative achievement, as one could hope for in a presidential candidate, contrasting starkly with the lack of executive experience of such prominent contenders as McCain, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton.
Still, Hewitt knows that Romney’s real appeal to Christian conservatives will not be his competence to govern, but his stance on cultural issues like abortion and marriage—subjects to which Hewitt devotes individual chapters. Romney’s biggest problem may be overcoming doubt about his changing position on abortion, which has provoked critics on both the Right and the Left. “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country,” Romney said in a debate back when he challenged Edward Kennedy for his Senate seat in 1994. A moment later, he added: “I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years, that we should sustain and support it, and I sustain and support that law and the right of a woman to make that choice.” A video of the debate has shown up on YouTube, where it has been viewed tens of thousands of times. Today, Romney freely admits that his position has changed. “Look, we have gone too far,” he said in the Republican candidates’ first presidential debate earlier this month. “It’s a brave new world mentality that Roe v. Wade has given us, and I changed my mind. I took the same course that Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush and Henry Hyde took. And I said I was wrong and changed my mind and said I’m pro-life.”
Hewitt thinks that the conversion is genuine, and he cites other conservatives who agree, including pro-life senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who says: “We’re not going to win this battle for life in this country unless we convince a lot of people to change their minds.” It’s a fair argument, and it has won over some conservatives, but certainly not all. At the conservative RedState blog, which posted some of the first attacks on Romney’s position on abortion, you’ll find ongoing skepticism, attributing his shift to political expediency, not conviction.
Romney also elicits doubts for what some see as his changing views on family values. “We must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern,” he said in 1994. He also endorsed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in a letter to a gay group, the Log Cabin Club of Massachusetts. But as Massachusetts’ governor, Romney vigorously pursued a state constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriages by defining marriage as an act between a man and a woman, a cause dear to cultural conservatives.
Some commentators see these positions as mutually exclusive and cynical. When the 1994 Log Cabin letter surfaced last December, Paul Weyrich, a founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation, urged Romney to repudiate it, and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called Romney’s views on gay rights “disturbing.” At the same time, the former head of the Massachusetts club accused Romney of an about-face on gay rights: “I’ve never seen anybody change like this,” he said in the New York Times.
Hewitt disagrees with both sides, arguing that there is no contradiction between advocating civil rights for gays and protecting traditional marriage. “Romney appears to be smack at the center of American public opinion concerning gay and lesbian Americans,” writes Hewitt. “They are our fellow citizens, entitled to all the rights and respect of any fellow citizen.” But while such a position may place Romney “at the center of American public opinion,” that’s not the same as being at the center of cultural-conservative opinion. Prominent conservatives continue to voice doubt about Romney’s positions on family issues.
In the debate currently raging among cultural conservatives about who the GOP’s nominee should be, one issue that’s usually shortchanged is the War on Terror, which is likely to play a crucial role in the 2008 general election. Iraq in particular remains the most important issue on the American public’s mind and will almost certainly still be front and center in 2008. Hewitt believes that Romney is well positioned on military issues, but it’s his weakest case. Though Romney didn’t serve in the military and has no significant foreign policy experience in his background, Hewitt argues, he will be able to apply the analytical expertise that he acquired at Bain Consulting to the Pentagon, shaping up our military and determining the most effective course in Iraq. Hewitt also argues that the American public is ready for the outside-the-beltway assessment of our military and the war that Romney could provide. Yet the fact that Hewitt spends no more than five pages on Romney and the war, but 42 pages on Romney’s defense of traditional marriage, is perhaps an indication that the ex-governor’s greatest weakness in his road to the White House may be, not on social issues, but on military ones.
In the end, the portrait that emerges from Hewitt’s useful and fast-paced book is of Romney as a dedicated family man, an experienced manager, and a savvy politician. Such arguments have already won Romney some converts among social conservatives, but there are holdouts, too. Stay tuned.