Thursday, December 06, 2007

Did Mitt sway the wary?

Mitt Romney finally delivered The Speech today - his long-awaited disquisition on the role of his Mormon faith in the public square - and he basically hewed to the JFK model, as evidenced by this promise: "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."

He said it all kinds of ways: "I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law. As a young man, Lincoln described what he called America's 'political religion' - the commitment to defend the rule of law and the Constitution. When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God." And, a bit later, "we separate church and state affairs in this country...No religion should dictate to the state..."

But we won't know whether his promise is enough to mollify his key target audience -Christian conservatives - until the primary season voting actually begins. Fairly or not, a lot of those folks don't trust Mormons; a recent Pew survey found that 36 percent of white Protestant evangelicals - and 41 percent of those who attend church weekly - say they're less likely to vote for a Mormon.

It's strictly a theological beef. Among those weekly churchgoers, 52 percent do not believe that Mormons are Christians. And since people are sometimes reluctant to come clean with pollsters, lest they appear to be prejudiced, the chances are that the actual percentages are higher. Hence the rise of Mike Huckabee, ex-pastor of the more familiar Baptists, who touts himself in a TV ad as a "Christian leader."

The potential problem for Romney, going forward, is that he said virtually nothing in his speech about the tenets of his religion, much less make the case that Mormons are Christian. He barely mentioned his religion at all, uttering the word Mormon only once. He had a reasonable explanation for why he was refusing to do so - the Founding Fathers decreed that Americans should not be forced to take a "religious test" in order to hold office - but his reticence may not be a short-run asset, politically speaking.

Christian conservatives are crucially important in the early Iowa caucuses and South Carolina primary, and the less they learn about the upside of Mormon religion - the less that Romney himself seeks to dispel their suspicions - the more they might be susceptible to subterranean whispering campaigns that are designed to paint the faith as threatening or simply wierd. (Indeed, Huckabee is reportedly surging in South Carolina anyway.)

Romney tried a few other strategies, in his bid to mollify the wary. He talked about the "American values" shared by all faiths, and he commiserated with Christian conservatives about how "some" are trying to drive religion out of the public square. He also painted himself as a man of conviction who would stay true to his religion no matter what, and therefore worthy of respect - although his words ("Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs") made me wince, given his lengthy track record of flipflops on issues.

So the verdict awaits. The thing is, I suspect that most Americans - as opposed to the gatekeepers of the GOP nomination - won't have a problem with the Romney speech. Perhaps with an eye toward the big-state primaries, he probably reassured the centrist electorate that he would keep his church at a distance while making presidential decisions.

And a lot of Americans don't have a problem with Mormons anyway. As Lynda Connelly, a Red Cross manager and moderate Democrat, remarked the other night during a focus group session in Philadelphia (much more on that tomorrow):

"I don't understand it (the antipathy toward Romney's faith). I've been out to Utah a lot, and I'll tell you something. It's a business, it's not a religion."


What a shock! It turns out - I know this is hard to believe - that President Bush didn't tell the whole truth on Tuesday, when he claimed in a press conference that he had been kept in the dark last summer about the impending intelligence report on Iran's nukes. (You may remember his Tuesday remark. Referring to intelligence czar Mike McConnell, "He didn’t tell me what the information was.")

Well, consider that claim to be inoperative. Now the White House is saying Bush did know something after all - that, in fact, the spy agencies were looking at the possibility that the Iran nuclear weapons program may have already been "suspended." Here's the latest Bush spin in full:

"Director McConnell said that the new information might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment of Iran's covert nuclear program, but the intelligence community was not prepared to draw any conclusions at that point in time, and it wouldn't be right to speculate until they had time to examine and analyze the new data."

Naturally, the White House is saying that there's absolutely no contradiction between what it's saying now and what Bush said on Tuesday. But the big question remains: Given this admission that he was in the loop as early as August about the possibility of a no-nukes report, why was he clanging the alarm about Iranian nukes in October?