Washington Matters


And God Bless Us, Every One ... Well, Nearly Every One



How well did Mitt Romney's speech embracing both his Mormonism and a role for broad religious values in American public life go over? It hasn't made much difference in the polls, but by specifically excluding non-believers in his mid-December speech, Romney managed to raise questions about his tactics. And he underscored the age old dilemma candidates have in trying to secure their nomination: How far can you go to attract party loyalists but without alienating the swing and independent voters who can be decisive in general elections.

Oh, and the speech started a mini-flap by making a claim that his campaign is now backing away -- that his father marched with Martin Luther King Jr.

Nationally, a Gallup poll indicates little change in attitudes. In Iowa, a third of evangelical protestants, a group Romney is specifically competing for against Mike Huckabee, said they couldn't vote for a Mormon. And his religion is emerging as a potential obstacle in South Carolina.

But the speech was received pretty well by the chattering class -- but only pretty well. Many pundits thought he struck the right tone -- balancing religious inclusiveness with personal devotion. Two particularly thoughtful pieces were turned in by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, now a Wall Street Journal scribe. They are both big fans of those who think American public life has strayed too far from its spiritual and religious roots. But they both expressed disappointment over the same point.

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Noonan generally had high praise (her column is available here; a paid subscription is required), saying it "will likely have a real and positive impact on his fortunes." But she saw weakness in failing to include those of no faith and wondered aloud if his camp feared that "some idiots would have seen it and been offended that this Romney character likes to laud atheists. And he would have lost the idiot vote."

Brooks, however, saw much more than a mistake or miscalculation and was far more biting, saying that rather than use religion as a path toward national unity, Romney had joined the culture war that has bubbled since the early 1980s. "Mitt Romney didn't start this war, but speeches like his both exploit and solidify this divide in people's minds."

Neither Brooks nor Noonan were terribly explicit about the key political dynamic at work here: Romney doesn't need nonbelievers in his camp, not yet anyway. Especially with former governor and preacher Huckabee breathing hellfire down his neck, Romney is fighting for  the party base of social and religious conservatives. Romney is doing what many, if not most candidates in primary battles do: focus on the party base and winning the nomination. A broader message for a broader audience can come later. Such a strategy can and has worked, but it also runs the risk of making a candidate appear calculating and disingenuous -- in a year where Americans appear increasingly fed-up with political expediency. For a candidate accused of backpedaling on a range of big issues like Romney, the risk is even higher. But he'll worry about that later -- if he ever needs to explain himself to a wider audience.

And he and his campaign may want to brush up a little on that explaining itself thing. The apparent mistake or misunderstanding over King and Romney senior marching together is far less painful than the tortured effort to back away from it: "He was speaking figuratively, not literally."




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