September 28, 2006
YOU can say what you want against American politics. You can call it corrupt, vulgar, interminable, and boringly limited to two behemoth parties. But you cannot accuse it of lacking in drama. The mid-term elections are still a month away, but some of the most intriguing action is taking place in the race for the presidency. Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, is making a concerted bid to seize the mantle as the leader of “the Republican wing of the Republican Party”.
Mr Romney is a scarily perfect presidential candidate. He has handsome looks—a mixture of Ronald Reagan and JFK, according to fans—and fearsome intelligence. He graduated from both Harvard Law School, cum laude, and Harvard Business School in the top 5% of his class. He is a Republican governor of liberal Taxachusetts, a sprig of a powerful mid-western political dynasty, and is much admired as a businessman. But Mitt has one big problem: Mormonism. Hence one of the liveliest debates on the right: can a Mormon win the presidency?
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Two years before a presidential election might seem a bit soon for such questions. But this is the age of the “permanent campaign”. And the Republicans have a habit of anointing their champion as early as possible: George Bush had the nomination locked up by the late 1990s. John McCain has made a good job of turning himself into the party’s heir presumptive. But now Mr Romney is mounting a powerful assault from the right.
On September 22nd he delighted 1,800 “values voters” gathered in Washington, DC, with a barn-storming defence of traditional marriage and patriotism. He has vocally defended Mr Bush’s policies on the interrogation of suspected terrorists, and suggested that the authorities should spend more time monitoring mosques. For a growing number of conservatives he is the answer to their prayers: a man who can not only derail the McCain Express but also hold the White House in 2008.
Mr Romney’s emergence as a conservative champion owes something to luck. His two biggest rivals on the right have imploded: Bill Frist because of his lacklustre performance as Senate majority leader, George Allen because of his gaffe-ridden Senate campaign. But it owes more to years of investment. Mr Romney has not only fought harder than any other governor on “social issues”, particularly gay marriage. He has done so in the heart of enemy territory.
Mr Romney won the governorship of a state where only 13% of the voters are registered Republicans, and where the congressional delegation is 100% Democratic. And he succeeded in working with a legislature where 87% of the members represent the other party. When he was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002, he found a $3 billion budget deficit; two years later he was running a surplus of more than $700m.
His hallmark before his recent fire-breathing reincarnation was pragmatism and competence. He founded Bain Capital, one of the country’s most successful venture-capital companies. He was at the heart of two dramatic turnarounds, first of Bain & Co (which was on the verge of going under when he was brought in as CEO) and then of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City (which threatened to collapse under the weight of bribery scandals and $400m-worth of debt). As governor of Massachusetts, he produced an eye-catching health-care reform that tries to use market mechanisms to solve the most pressing problem, lack of coverage for the uninsured.
Yet Mr Romney is a devoted Mormon—a former bishop, no less—at a time when religion is playing a growing role in American politics. Opinion polls suggest that anti-Mormon feeling is one of the most enduring religious prejudices in America. An LATimes/Bloomberg poll in June found that 37% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate; other polls put the figure at 17%.
Anti-Mormon feeling is particularly strong among Bible-believing Christians, a vital part of the Republican base. Many evangelicals regard Mormonism as nothing more than a cult: and a cult, moreover, that is based not only on a false theology but also on a willingness to tamper with the inerrant word of God that is the Bible.
Looking past Mormonism
So will the whiz-kid governor be doomed by the Book of Mormon? Not necessarily. That 37% is certainly not an encouraging figure. But back in 1960 35% of people told pollsters that they would have qualms about voting for a Catholic, and in that year a Catholic reached the White House. Today, 21% of people say they would have qualms about voting for an evangelical; time may tell differently. For most voters, religion is just one factor among many that they consider: there is a difference between rejecting a generic Mormon and rejecting a smooth operator with a plan for universal health insurance.
As for evangelical Christians, they can be a remarkably pragmatic bunch. They have spent the past few decades building alliances with “people of faith” whom they once regarded as spawn of the devil. And they know a winner when they see one: they happily forgave Reagan his divorce and eccentric theological views. In an ideal world they might prefer a more orthodox man of faith. But if it comes to a choice between Mr Romney and a maverick like Mr McCain or an avowed social liberal like Rudy Giuliani, they may be willing to swallow the Book of Mormon.
Mr Romney’s opponents may well find other weaknesses to exploit. He is a somewhat bloodless candidate, a conservative of the head rather than the heart, and approaches presidential politics rather like a Harvard Business School case study. First, prove that he can run a state; then lock up the conservative base; then pivot back to the centre . But for the moment at least it seems that conservative Republicans have found their man for 2008.