Wayne M. O’Leary

God and Man on the Campaign Trail

It’s been a rough few months for Willard “Mitt” Romney, golden boy of the Republican presidential nominating process and candidate of convenience for GOP activists seeking a place to park their conservative ideology. Still the likeliest nominee in a field of dreary GOP choices (McCain’s too old, Thompson’s too tired, Giuliani’s too mean, Huckabee’s too flaky), the scion of Mormon rectitude is discovering that there’s more to national politics than money and slick salesmanship.

First, there were the widely noted flip-flops. The philosophically elusive former Massachusetts governor has been revealed as a paragon of political reinvention. Once for abortion rights, he’s now aggressively pro-life. Once a supporter of civil unions for gays, he now opposes them. Once a backer of liberal immigration reform, he’s now a hard-liner on the subject. Once in favor of gun control, he’s now for eliminating restrictions on firearms. Once a pro-environmental champion of reduced greenhouse gases, he’s now in favor of oil drilling in ANWR and reduced regulation on power-plant emissions.

Romney’s stunning transformation is not the product of an extended period of intense introspection or agonizing self-reexamination. It has all happened within the space of five years, starting with his successful run for the governorship of Massachusetts in 2002 as a supposed moderate Republican and culminating with his current White House campaign as a born-again conservative. Few politicians of the modern era have shown the utter lack of embarrassment needed to execute such a thorough ideological turnabout in such a brief time — and between elections at that.

Ronald Reagan evolved from a New Deal liberal to a card-carrying conservative during his career, but the Gipper’s conversion at least took place over two decades and was prompted less by an immediate hunger for office than by a distaste for labor unions and a reluctance to pay his upper-bracket federal income taxes. In Romney’s case, it’s the pure produce of political opportunism: Massachusetts wouldn’t elect a conservative governor in 2002, and Republicans won’t nominate a moderate for president in 2008.

The upshot is that disowning his gubernatorial years and bashing his erstwhile home state has become a Romney staple on the hustings. When his flip-flops are raised (as they increasingly are), the practiced response is that Massachusetts and its awful liberal voters made him do it. This extends to Romney’s sponsorship and signing into law of the Bay State’s universal health-care reform, which the millionaire businessman — he’s worth between $200 and $400 million — now says was forced upon him by state legislators and would make a poor model for the country as a whole.

In that one respect, he may be right. The Massachusetts health-insurance plan, which Romney used to kickstart his presidential bid and then abandoned, is predictably in trouble. By forcing the medically uninsured to purchase coverage in the private market, the former governor made his adopted state hostage to its own commercial insurance companies. Annual premiums, which were supposed to increase by less than 5%, are presently on track to rise by 10% to 12% in 2008. That will either cause the self-insured who can’t meet their premiums to violate the law and incur penalties by dropping coverage, or require the state to ante up in the form of drastically higher public subsidies. Meanwhile, freed of responsibility, Bay State employers (3% so far) are dropping their own job-related coverage and adding to the pool of uninsured. As for Mitt, he’s out of there; it’s no longer his problem.

While his state is busy struggling with things temporal, its former chief executive is on to higher matters — namely, his relationship with the Almighty. The highly publicized Romney address on religious faith in America, delivered at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in December, was prompted by Mitt’s problematic membership in a sect (the Church of Latter-Day Saints) that, until 1978, was officially racist and continues to maintain a tenuous relationship with mainstream Christianity. The ex-governor’s purported goal was to clear the air by aping John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on his Catholicism before a gathering of Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas.

Instead of clearing the air, Romney polluted it. Not satisfied with making a legitimate case for the right of a Mormon to aspire to the presidency, he used the occasion to pander for evangelical votes by conjuring up the vision of an impending Armageddon in America: the coming confrontation between religious believers and secularists. Guess which side Mitt is on.

While JFK called for an America where “the separation of church and state is absolute,” where religious beliefs are a private affair, and where everyone has a right to attend “or not attend” the church of their choice, Romney argued that “freedom requires religion,” that (quoting John Adams approvingly) the Constitution was made for believers, and that religion should be unapologetically reinserted into our public life. “Any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty,” gushed Mitt, “has a friend and ally in me.” That presumably leaves out the 41 million of his fellow citizens (20% of the adult population) who were reported in 2001 to be skeptics, unbelievers, or members of no organized church.

Separation of church and state has been carried too far, according to the Mormon redeemer. The clear implication is that, if elected, he will reintegrate them and battle evil secularism on behalf of the Lord. Does he mean it? Maybe and maybe not. His record of inconstancy raises questions. Certainly, there is much to be gained by playing the religion card. To reach the White House, the Willy Loman of contemporary politics first needs to sell himself to the Christian right of his own party, in order to secure its nomination. And the man is nothing if not a born salesman; it’s how he made his millions as founder and CEO of the private-equity firm Bain Capital, investing in and ruthlessly restructuring companies, disposing of workers along the way.

Yet smooth, syrupy talk and insincere charm can carry you only so far. Playwright Arthur Miller described the quintessential salesman this way: “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they stop smiling back — that’s an earthquake.” For Mitt, they’re starting to not smile back.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two books.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2008

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