The D.C. Examiner
September 11, 2006
BOSTON–Lately it seems as if Mitt Romney–a Mormon who wants to disabuse the public of the misconception that his church condones polygamy–simply cannot catch a break.
First there was “Big Love,” a TV series about polygamy in Utah that made a major splash on HBO in March. Although the show’s creators pointed out that the official Mormon Church has banned polygamy since 1890, casual viewers don’t always make the distinction.
Then came the high-profile arrest last month of polygamist Warren Steed Jeffs, who was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Jeffs was the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a moniker that is confusingly close to the Mormon church’s official name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“It bothers me no end that the term polygamy keeps being associated with my faith,” says Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, in an interview with The Examiner. “There is nothing more awful, in my view, than the violation of the marriage covenant that one has with one’s wife.
“The practice of polygamy is abhorrent, it’s awful, and it drives me nuts that people who are polygamists keep pretending to use the umbrella of my church,” he adds in his ornate office at the State House. “My church abhors it, it excommunicates people who practice it, and it’s got nothing to do with my faith.”
Romney becomes animated about the issue because he knows that Mormonism looks suspiciously like a cult to some evangelical Christians, a crucial voting bloc in the Republican presidential primaries of 2008. To assuage such voters, Romney is quick to point out similarities between Mormonism and other brands of Christianity.
“I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ as my savior,” he says. “I’m sure there are differences between the doctrines of my church and the doctrines of other churches that believe in God and Jesus Christ.”
He adds: “But I do believe that the values which are part of my heritage are very much the American values that people look for in a leader. And that’s why in a state like this one, which is 55 percent Catholic, they wondered about a Mormon guy, but quickly recognized that the values that I have are very much the values of people of faith throughout the land.”
Romney’s religion might be something that could “bite him” in a presidential race, said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and one of the most influential conservatives in Washington. But Norquist is generally bullish on Romney’s White House prospects.
“When I talk to each of the presidential candidates, every one of them brings up Romney–unsolicited–because they’re all focused on him as the smartest, toughest guy in the race,” Norquist said last month.
When reminded of Norquist’s remarks, Romney flashes a movie-star smile and deploys his self-deprecating sense of humor.
“Well, Grover’s my brother, actually–we changed his name when he got older,” he jokes before turning serious. “I’m honored by his compliment and I would aspire to be tough and smart.”
From a conservative perspective, Romney is indeed tough on immigration (he opposes a guest-worker program until the borders are secured), gay marriage (he wants a constitutional ban) and national security (he generally supports President Bush’s Iraq policy). Last week, he pleased conservatives even further by criticizing Harvard for inviting former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami, whom he called “a terrorist,” to speak on the eve of the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11.
But Romney may not be considered tough enough on the issue that is of paramount importance to many conservatives: abortion.
When he ran for governor in 2002, he proclaimed: “I believe women should have the right to make their own choice.” But now that he’s considering a run for president, Romney insists: “I’m firmly pro-life.”
“My position has changed,” he acknowledged to The Examiner.
Romney says his epiphany occurred just two years ago, when discussing stem cell research with a pair of experts from Harvard.
“At one point, one of the two said, ‘this is not a moral issue because we kill the embryos at 14 days‚’ ”
Romney recalls. “And I looked over at Beth Myers, my chief of staff, and we both had exactly the same reaction, which is it just hit us hard.
“And as they walked out, I said, ‘Beth, we have cheapened the sanctity of life by virtue of the Roe v. Wade mentality.’ And from that point forward, I said to the people of Massachusetts, ‘I will continue to honor what I pledged to you, but I prefer to call myself pro-life.’ ”
Romney pledged during the campaign not to change the state’s abortion laws, a position that made him more politically palatable in an overwhelmingly pro-choice state. Asked why he would sit out the fight over one of the most important issues of the day, Romney says he preferred to focus on 100 other issues that he had chosen as his platform.
Pressed on whether he should have displayed more leadership on the abortion issue, Romney replies: “You decide which of the things that you’re going to take and you’re going to fight for. And that’s exactly what I did.”
Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, says Romney’s evolving stance on abortion dates back to at least 1996, when he sought to become a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.
“He was pro-choice when he ran against Ted Kennedy in the Senate race,” Rothenberg says. “Then he was pro-life, but he wouldn’t do anything, when he ran for governor. And now he’s unapologetically, consistently, unalterably pro-life.”
He adds: “That certainly starts out as a problem.”
In an effort to mitigate that problem, Romney plays up his family values.
“I’m, first, deeply committed to the principle of the family being the foundation of our society,” he says. “I’ve been married to my high school sweetheart for 37 years. We have five children, nine grandchildren.”
By contrast, a number of other Republican presidential hopefuls have been divorced.
Should Mitt Romney join a 2008 race that included John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and George Allen, the only guy in the GOP field with only one wife would be the Mormon, quips Kate O’Beirne of National Review.
As for McCain, Romney says he is delighted to see him anointed as the early front-runner by the mainstream media.
“There’s nothing I’d like better than seeing someone else out there as the front-runner,” he says. “Back in 1968, my dad was the front-runner and he lost.”
Indeed, former Michigan Gov. George Romney was the early favorite to capture the Republican presidential nomination nearly four decades ago. But he torpedoed his own campaign by remarking that his early support for the Vietnam war had been the result of “brainwashing.”
Although Romney would certainly strive to avoid any such gaffe in a general election campaign against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., he acknowledges that vanquishing her will not be easy.
“Hillary Clinton would be a far more effective candidate than the pundits and the public at large perhaps give her credit for today,” he says. “And that’s because many of us remember her as the first lady, new to the job and with her health care plan making a blunder or two. I think she’s been more schooled and more experienced since then.”
Still, Romney says that ultimately “people will reject her brand of liberalism, recognizing that it will make America weaker, not stronger.”
He adds: “She’d win in a landslide the primaries and I think she’ll lose in the general.”
Willard Mitt Romney
1947: Born in Detroit, son of former Republican Michigan Gov. George Romney
1965: Graduates from Cranbrook Kingswood prep school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
1968: Completes 2.5 years of missionary work in France on behalf of the Mormon church
1969: Marries high-school sweetheart, Ann. The couple will eventually have five sons.
1971: Graduates from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah
1975: Receives MBA and law degrees from Harvard in Cambridge, Mass.
1978: Joins Bain Consulting in Boston
1984: Romney and two other partners spin off Bain Capital, which becomes a highly successful venture capital firm
1994: Mounts failed bid to unseat Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
1999: Takes over the scandal-plagued planning for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah
2002: Elected Governor of Massachusetts
What changes would he make as president?
He now says: “I’m firmly pro-life.” But in 2002, when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, he said: “I believe women should have the right to make their own choice.”
Supports a constitutional ban.
Pushed through mandatory health insurance for all residents of Massachusetts, saving taxpayers from subsidizing hospitals for indigent care.
Opposes any guest-worker program until the borders have been secured.
Generally supports President Bush’s policy, although he has criticized intelligence failures, Abu Ghraib and what he called insufficient troop levels.
Has kept a 2002 campaign pledge not to raise taxes in Massachusetts. In 2004, his call for a tax cut was rejected by the Democratic legislature.
What they are saying
Des Moines Register
PRO » “He’s optimistic, energetic, upbeat … He’s doing about as well as any Republican is in this state.”
CON » “The Mormon question keeps coming up, but I hear more media people asking it than I hear rank and file in Iowa talking about it.”
Cook Political Report
PRO » “The guy’s got movie-star good looks.”
CON » “I can hear in my mind a phone bank in South Carolina saying: ‘Do you realize that if Mitt Romney’s elected president, he’ll be the first president to take an oath of office with his hand on the Book of Mormon?’
University of Virginia
PRO » “Romney has as much or more charisma than anyone in the GOP field. He’s a good speaker and he cuts a dashing figure.”
CON » “Christian conservatives have major doctrinal problems with Mormonism…and most Republicans really don’t trust anyone, even a Republican, who can get elected in the liberal Bay State.”
After studying the polls, consulting the handicappers and interviewing the candidates themselves, The Examiner has winnowed a list of some 30 potential presidential contenders down to 10. The result is Meet the Next President, a two-week series of in-depth profiles of the 10 people most likely to become the next leader of the free world. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, front-runners and dark horses in the 2008 presidential sweepstakes – even before the 2006 midterms have been decided. With presidential campaigns starting earlier each election cycle, why wait?