The Mitt/Mormon issue is buzzing all around me. A friend of mine forwarded a link to an article from David Frum at National Review which makes the case that Mitt’s speech is going to cause him a whole lot of problems. Jonah Goldberg, at NRO’s Corner, has received a host of emails from evangelicals who maintain that Mitt would do nothing objectionable as president, but the mere fact that he’s a Mormon is enough to disqualify him, because a Mormon president would, just by his very existence, make Mormonism acceptable to more people, and therefore inadvertently drag more deluded souls down to the bowels of hell.
I have a few thoughts. The speech I wrote isn’t the speech Mitt needs to give at this point – and I do think he needs to give a speech, and that now is the time to do it – but the general principles I tried to follow still hold true. Mitt cannot get drawn into discussions of theology. Nor can he insist that he’s a Christian, and that all you evangelicals are just going to have to accept that. Even more importantly, he can’t call everyone bigots and shame them into voting for him.
For some reason, this whole thing reminds me of when I went to Jackson Hole to run a theatre and decided to do highbrow stuff like The Mystery of Edwin Drood instead of pandering to the Wild West yahoos with crap like Annie Get Your Gun. Turns out the yahoos refused to come see my high-minded crap, and when I broke down and did the Western stuff they wanted, I had a full house. I learned that audiences don’t want to be educated, or at the very least, they don’t want to be educated by the likes of me. Similarly, voters don’t take kindly to being scolded. And if Mitt’s going to say “Tsk! Tsk, you anti-Mormon Philistines!” and hope that his high-mindedness will yield evangelical votes, he’s going to find himself with a lot of time on his hands come February or so.
Frum makes the case that most Americans already know that Mormons are good citizens, and the challenges Romney faces are very different from the ones faced by a Catholic Kennedy in 1960. If he can’t defend doctrine – which he can’t – and he can’t resort to indignation – which I hope he won’t – then, Frum asks, what’s left?
The answer is Mitt Romney. He’s what’s left. He needs to get people to think of him as Mitt Romney, not just the Mormon guy running for president.
What do I mean by that?
Well, look at the generic polling. When pollsters ask “do you want a Democrat or a Republican to win the White House in 2008?” the numbers come back overwhelmingly in favor of the Dems. But when you start putting actual people into the mix, the numbers change considerably. How can that be? Because Hillary Clinton isn’t just a Democrat. She’s also Hillary Clinton, and her party affiliation just becomes one element of the whole poisoned brew that people have to swallow when they consider her as the next president.
So we’ve all heard the stats that people won’t vote for a Mormon. But did you know that even more people say they won’t vote for a man over 70? If McCain were to join the Church, he’d be in bigger trouble than he already is.
Mitt needs to make it personal. He needs to talk about how his faith has guided him, how he could no sooner walk away from it then cut off his own arm. One of Mitt’s biggest weaknesses as a candidate, apart from his religious affiliation, is his lack of authenticity, which comes from his unwillingness to open up about his faith for fear of causing political problems. He needs to go whole hog – say why he’s a Mormon, and why that makes him uniquely suited to champion the issues dear to the hearts of those who oppose him theologically. And then he needs to go further – blend all of his career and his accomplishments into a single, cohesive whole. He needs evangelicals to say, “I don’t like Mormonism, but I like Mitt.” If he can do that, he’s the next President of the United States.
Right now, most people see Mitt as The Mormon Guy, if they see him as anything at all. This speech runs the risk of reinforcing that perception rather than refuting it. But it’s also the only way to get people to see him as a person and not as a proselyting tool. It’s not just a chance to defend his faith – it’s a chance to define himself. Very few candidates get a chance to do that with the world watching. Mitt’s got it. Will he use it, or will he blow it by playing too cautious, too guarded, the way he’s been campaigning thus far?
It’s all about Mitt now. He’s taking a huge risk. And the only way to get great returns is to take huge risks.