I was not too impressed with Mitt Romney’s speech at the time. I wanted to give the speech several days to settle before I weighed in. Several things seemed clear to me.

The first thing is that Romney had a clear "comma problem". Ron Fournier at the AP wrote about it like this:

Indeed, there was intense debate inside the campaign about whether to deliver a religion address. Romney was torn from the start, telling advisers that he had a "comma problem." Political journalists always follow his name by a comma, the words "a Mormon," and another comma, Romney said, according to two advisers involved in the conversations. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they’re not supposed to reveal private talks.

"If I give a speech about Mormonism," he complained privately, "I’ll never get beyond the comma problem."

Romney had to get beyond the discourse in the media about his religion. And it succeeded at this. Prior to the speech, the question was "will his religion matter" and after the speech it was "it shouldn’t matter". For example, the Des Moines Register and David Broder. It is not that Romney’s faith will stop being an issue to some voters. It is that people will stop writing about it. That is not just good for Romney, but it is good for America. Romney has done the country a service.

Second, Romney tried to rejigger the lines. David Brooks captures it nicely:

Romney’s job yesterday was to unite social conservatives behind him. If he succeeded, he did it in two ways. He asked people to rally around the best traditions of America’s civic religion. He also asked people to submerge their religious convictions for the sake of solidarity in a culture war without end.

In other words, the battle is between people without faith and people with faith, without regard to what that particular faith is. There is an argument that this has become part of the public stance of a large part of the GOP. Of course, there are internal contradictions on this. Romney’s comments about Muslims. The Southern Baptists’ public statements about Jews. Etc. But it is a coherent position with wide appeal to the American people for good reason. Broadly, the ridiculous assault on Romney by the media about whether atheists have a role in America is helpful

Third, as I have long asserted, there is a certain advantage to Romney to this discussion. Properly framed, there is no reason at all that the Mormonism issue should damage him too much. As Dick Morris explains in this interview with Bill O’Reilly, Romney may want to focus on this because it sucks the oxygen out of other issues. The more that Romney can talk about this broader conflict between the faithful and the secular or real people and the politically correct, the better his chances are. If the topic is his integrity or his flip-floppery (or as Morris calls it, his "flip-flop-flip on abortion") then Romney has a lot of problems. Romney’s task is probably to keep the focus on this, while opposing campaigns try to move the ball towards his integrity and character issues.

Fourth, and complimentary to this, the guy got a 30 minute infomercial and a lot of op-ed copy dedicated to him. It made it hard for people to evolve messages much last week. That clearly didn’t hurt Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani is bottoming out of, at least, this cycle of bad stories.

All in all, it could have been a good idea. There is little evidence that it is actually moving voters. Anecdotes are not positive. Polling will take some time, and it will depend on a whole lot of confounding factors like other stories coming out.

I will point out that this is not the timing that they wanted. As Peggy Noonan points out, this probably wasn’t the timing that they wanted:

In May he decided to do it, but timing was everything. His campaign wanted to do it when he was on the ascendancy, not defensively but from a position of strength. In October they decided to do the speech around Thanksgiving. Mr. Romney gathered together all the material and began to work in earnest. Then they decided it would get lost in the holiday clutter. They decided to go after Thanksgiving, but before Dec. 15. The rise of Mike Huckabee, according to this telling, didn’t force this decision but complicated it.

If Romney is the nominee, the histories will be revised to say that this was a great moment of American politics. No doubt about that.

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3 Comments

Rachel · December 8, 2007 at 2:51 PM

I thought the speech was very good. In fact, for a second I thought he would make a great President.
Then I recalled all his politically convenient conversions and decided no, not so much.

I am comfortable with Romney’s religion. I am not comfortable with Romney’s liberal past.

And I get the odd sense that the speech was given in order for me to be more comfortable with his flip/flops. In a way I think he feels like he is the victim of religious bigotry.
So he is setting the meme for an excuse if he loses. He can’t believe he is losing to someone like Huckabee. So it has to be the religion thing.
I am not falling for it.

And the NH push-poll results will most likely come next week! I can’t wait.

ALB · December 8, 2007 at 3:35 PM

Eye,

I agree with David Brooks on this one more than I agree with you.

Romney stood up in Houston and said, effectively, my faith doesn’t matter because I’m just the same as you are; “[I] share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty.”

When JFK went down to Houston, his message was that the concerns that he’d be the puppet of the Vatican were senseless: “I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me.” See here for the speech and here for the Q&A which followed.

Brooks was on the money to criticize Romney for papering over the theological differences that exist in American society. Romney spoke of “the great moral inheritance we hold in common” in the American experience of “In God We Trust.” He squished the decades of vigorous schism-causing debates within the American churches into “the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself” about which he said “no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.” Maybe. In the end. But opposition to that conscience among religious and areligious people can allow certain amoral peculiar institutions to last for dreadful years and years.

JFK also defended the strength of the individual conscience more strongly than Romney did. JFK framed his independence in political matters from his church through his own resistance to pressure should his religious superior call him up to say, ‘JFK, vote this way.’ Romney simply said ‘the phone’s not ringing; my religious superior isn’t calling.’ — Compare —

ROMNEY: “Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.”

JFK-speech: “But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do likewise.”

JFK-q&a: “May I just say that as I do not accept the right of any, as I said, ecclesiastical official, to tell me what I shall do in the sphere of my public responsibility as an elected official…”

Also, Romney was steadfast in his opposition to answering questions about his church’s doctrines. JFK took such questions openly, after he’d earlier referenced the circulation of out-of-context quotations from Catholic leaders and religious materials. JFK spoke as though he realized that many who saw such out-of-context quotations would find them strange and foreign. So he answered the questions with his beliefs as they were relevant to his role as a public official, repeating that he was unqualified to speak on behalf of the Catholic Church. Romney won’t talk about the LDS Church, but the rumors about Mormon doctrine on YouTube are weird and getting weirder. If that remains the primary source of ‘information’ in the eyes of voters, his refusal to explain doctrines from a layman’s perspective might just sink him. Give people a chance to listen respectively. — Compare —

ROMNEY: “There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes President he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.”

JFK-q&a: There’s too much to quote, but see the interchange with B.E. Howard, Minister of the Church of Christ, in which the minister quotes from a compendium of Catholic teaching and from the then-current Pope John XIII; and in which Robert McLaren of Westminister Presbyterian Church quotes from the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Leo IX. JFK answers the questions in a spirit of proving the absence of a religious test for office.

eye · December 8, 2007 at 4:37 PM

I don’t think that I disagree with Brooks. However, I do think that there is more political manipulation of this behind the scenes

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