This isn’t the first time a successful businessman and Republican governor named Romney has launched a serious presidential bid. The outcome of that campaign was best described by longtime Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes: “Watching George Romney run for the presidency was like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
Forty years later, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has several advantages his father lacked: he leads the Republican presidential field in fundraising, has built an impressive national campaign organization, and has mostly received favorable coverage from the conservative press. And that’s without even mentioning his hair. Yet Romney has so frequently struggled to put these assets to good use that Rhodes’s crude analogy once again seems apt. This time the problem isn’t brainwashing but overselling: Romney’s supporters appear determined to spin a plausible candidate into a punch line.
A Mormon in the White House?: 10 Things Every American Should Know about Mitt Romney, by conservative commentator and Chapman University law professor Hugh Hewitt, is a good example of this problem. If it were actually a piece of Romney campaign literature, it would merely be overdone. As independent political analysis, the book is embarrassing. The Mormon issue is the only one of Romney’s political liabilities Hewitt seriously grapples with—unless you consider being “too perfect” a real problem—and the reader has to wade through nine chapters of hagiography to get to this important discussion.
Hewitt opens a section on the candidate’s disadvantages by noting, “Mitt Romney is handsome, articulate—even eloquent—well tailored, married to an attractive woman, and father to five all-American boys.” The chapters about this “Christmas card family” and Romney’s accomplishments in the business world would make for better reading if the author didn’t try so hard to turn his book into a joint episode of “The Apprentice” and “Father Knows Best.”
We’re told that as a business consultant, Romney discovered “everything begins with smart people.” Elsewhere we learn that like many “achievement-oriented dads of that era,” Mitt taught his children that “work was important.” Another Hewitt observation: “Character matters to Romney, a lot, and that will no doubt be a theme of his campaign.”
Much of A Mormon in the White House? is drawn from softball interviews with Romney and the people closest to him. Hewitt penetratingly asked Romney’s sons how smart their dad is. “Off the charts,” Josh Romney replied. Hewitt says he “voiced [his] skepticism” when Tagg Romney talked about his father’s generosity, “but Tagg was adamant.”
Behind Hewitt’s cloying prose, Romney actually does have an interesting story. After graduating from a joint JD/MBA program offered at Harvard’s law and business schools, he climbed the corporate ladder in the consulting business. Romney co-founded a venture-capital firm that helped launch hundreds of companies, including Staples and Domino’s Pizza. In 1990, he returned, this time as CEO, to his old consulting firm, Bain & Co., and helped it avert financial collapse.
Guiding troubled institutions away from financial catastrophe became Romney’s calling. He helped restore solvency to the 2002 Olympics Winter Games, turning a $379 million revenue shortfall into a $100 million profit. Republicans then persuaded him to return to Massachusetts to run for governor, bumping aside acting Gov. Jane Swift. Romney was able to extend the GOP’s hold on the governorship of the most Democratic state for another four years and managed to transform a $3 billion deficit into a $1 billion surplus, mostly through spending restraint (although some of the fee hikes and loophole closings look suspiciously like tax increases).
For his presidential run, Romney could have chosen to emphasize his fiscal acumen and penchant for problem solving. This Harvard MBA certainly has better management and public-speaking skills than the current president. Instead, Romney has chosen to campaign as the conservative litmus-test candidate despite his generally moderate Massachusetts record. Now when people talk about dramatic Romney-engineered turnarounds, they are usually referring to his political flips rather than his rescues of the Olympics and Bain. He has been grilled for inconsistencies on the 2003 Bush tax cuts, gun control, amnesty for illegal immigrants, antidiscrimination laws for homosexuals, campaign finance reform, a secret timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, and most critically, abortion. Hewitt, on the other hand, is consistent in downplaying these controversies.
While he does concede that “Mitt Romney’s abortion views have changed in the past dozen years,” Hewitt offers two seemingly contradictory explanations for his man’s shift: Romney realized he couldn’t win in Massachusetts as an “ardent pro-life activist” and also underwent a sincere change of heart. Hewitt additionally praises Romney both for keeping his promise not to change Massachusetts’s liberal abortion laws and for compiling a pro-life record while governor.
Sound confusing? In Hewitt’s defense, pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike have been trying in vain to decipher Romney’s abortion beliefs ever since his failed Senate race against Ted Kennedy 13 years ago. The candidate’s strange relationship with Massachusetts Citizens for Life, the commonwealth’s largest anti-abortion organization, demonstrates how difficult this can be. The group endorsed Romney in 1994, citing his support for parental-notification laws and opposition to taxpayer-funded abortions and a federal statute codifying Roe v. Wade. He later reversed or modified most of these positions. A campaign spokesman absurdly claimed Massachusetts Citizens for Life actually endorsed Romney because they admired the consistency of his pro-choice stance. In a 2002 debate immortalized on YouTube, Romney angrily denied ever accepting its endorsement. Before leaving office, he gave the group $15,000.
Many presidential candidates have experienced leap-year abortion conversions, always conveniently in the direction of their party’s platform. Romney has zigzagged left and right on the issue for over a decade. Rather than exploring this odd trajectory, Hewitt uncritically accepts Romney’s own version of events. A politician who once movingly described becoming pro-choice when a family friend died from an illegal abortion now says he became pro-life after hearing a scientist use the word “destroy” while talking about stem-cell research (an account the scientist disputes).
Who wouldn’t question this? The same partisans who think it is perfectly natural for a one-time booster of assault-weapon bans to suddenly announce he is a (very recent) lifetime NRA member and a (very occasional) hunter of varmints. Romney is like the overachieving college senior who can’t resist padding an already commendable resume. Hewitt plays the role of the eager job-placement counselor.
Sometimes it is a real stretch. Hewitt contends that because Romney handled security at the post-9/11 Winter Olympics and did some grandstanding when the former president of Iran visited Massachusetts, he is qualified to lead the war on terrorism. For all their flaws, both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain (and for that matter, most of the Democratic candidates) have more convincing national-security credentials.
Hewitt similarly inflates Romney’s record on conservative judges. Romney made some solid appointments to the Massachusetts appeals courts, but the Boston Globe reported that three quarters of his judicial picks statewide weren’t even Republicans, much less conservatives. This reflected political reality—Romney’s nominees had to be confirmed by an almost entirely Democratic body—but would be worth noting in a balanced account.
But not even Hewitt thinks Romney is invincible. He acknowledges that some voters may be jealous of the ex-governor’s wealth. He also fears that workers laid off when Romney acquired their companies may come forward to elucidate the downside of the “Bain way.” Ted Kennedy used these stories to great effect in 1994.
In the tenth chapter, Hewitt finally turns to the question on the jacket cover: do the American people want an adherent of the Mormon faith in the White House? The answer of a substantial minority appears to be no. Up to 43 percent tell pollsters they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon. This includes both secular liberals, who dislike the Mormons’ alien traditions and conservative politics, and Christian traditionalists (especially evangelicals), who reject Mormonism as heresy.
Slate editor Jacob Weisberg has asserted that anybody dumb enough to believe “an obvious con man” like Latter Day Saints’ founder Joseph Smith shouldn’t be president. In a cover story for The New Republic, Damon Linker worried that a Mormon president would be subservient to LDS church leaders. These concerns might be easier to take seriously if Mormons didn’t have a long history of responsible participation in the American political process, as evidenced by Harry Reid, Orrin Hatch, Mo Udall, and George and Mitt Romney.
Hewitt argues convincingly that conservative Christians would err by rejecting Romney solely for theological reasons. Doing so would reinforce the view that social conservatives are religiously intolerant while legitimizing questions about the supernatural aspects of their own faiths that seem equally bizarre when seen through secularist eyes.
The Mormon material is the best in the book, but despite the title, Hewitt devotes more space to defending Romney’s conservatism than his religion. And for good reason: Romney was a solid but unspectacular governor of a liberal state. The conservative things he tried to do, like resisting same-sex marriage, were often thwarted. The things he got passed, like his healthcare plan, were not unambiguously conservative. Romney is trying to run for president as someone he is not.
Perhaps it will work. Several polls show Romney surging in New Hampshire and Iowa, though he remains stuck in single digits elsewhere. In a field dominated by people who say many things conservatives dislike, maybe there is a market for a candidate who tells them what they want to hear. That is what Hewitt—whose past recommendations to conservatives include Gerald Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arlen Specter, and Harriet Miers—is selling.
But if the campaign falters, better to chalk it up to the voters’ envy and anti-Mormon bigotry than a failure to close the sale.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.