Mitt Romney has run a textbook presidential campaign, and, at the same time — given his overwhelming resources, organization and TV advertising — he has underperformed. He suffered from an enthusiasm gap even when his lead in early states like Iowa was unchallenged, which it is no longer.
The undertow on Romney has been doubts about his authenticity and Mormon faith. In “The Speech” at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, Romney helped himself on both fronts, perhaps the former even more than the latter.
Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks about the economy at a meeting of the Manchester Rotary Club in Manchester, New Hampshire December 3, 2007.
Throughout the past couple of years, Romney has moved right on hot-button issues, creating the impression that he’s infinitely malleable. In the highest-profile speech of his career, Romney planted an unmovable flag: “My faith is the faith of my fathers — I will be true to them and to my beliefs. Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it.”
On the stump, the former management consultant who loves data as much as he hates inefficiencies has trouble connecting with voters on a gut level. In College Station, he delivered his speech with a transparent sincerity and, at times, passion. He even misted up.
At his worst, Romney has seemed a mere collection of political positions; in The Speech, he showed a core, a political soul. He partially wrote and then delivered a speech that was a deeply felt love poem to America, a defense and celebration of its religious vibrancy and world-shaping commitment to liberty. For this moment at least, the shrewd politician was replaced by the simple, unadorned patriot.
Romney will have a harder time dispelling doubts about his Mormonism than about his political character. Christians and secularists who consider Mormonism a cult whose adherents are unworthy of high political office won’t be moved by any speech. As for everyone else, what else do they need to know other than, as Romney put it, “When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God”?
Romney appropriately steered his discussion away from Mormonism in particular to our civic religion, or as he called it, our “common creed of moral convictions.” This is our fundamental American public faith: that we are a religious people who should acknowledge our debt to our Creator in our public ceremonies and rituals, and more importantly, in our devotion to equal rights under the law and to liberty.
Believing in this civic faith is the real “religious test” in American politics; it’s impossible to imagine anyone being elected president who doesn’t profess it. Romney argued that demanding anything more of a presidential candidate is basically un-American. In a passage invoking shunned religious dissenters Ann Hutchison, Roger Williams and Brigham Young, he placed Mormonism in the tradition of once-exotic faiths in America that have been absorbed into the mainstream precisely because our civic religion is so broad and open.
Romney had his slips. It’s not true that it would violate the Constitution’s prohibition on religious tests for office if a presidential candidate talked in detail about his faith and people voted on that basis; people can vote for or against candidates for whatever reason they like. Romney seemed to contradict himself by not wanting to get into doctrine but still going out of his way to say he believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
But overall Romney dealt with a complex topic admirably. At bottom, all that Romney asks is something very basic — that he be judged on his merits as a businessman, father, governor and presidential candidate.
In the conclusion of his speech, Romney talked of the difficulty of settling on a prayer at the First Continental Congress in 1774 because of all the different faiths represented there: “Then Sam Adams rose, and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as they were a patriot.” Amen.