Time test flies a faith-free Romney story

I’m sorry to bring this up, but it’s time – once again – to wrestle with the complicated reality that is GOP superstar (sort of) Willard Mitt Romney and the challenges he presents to mainstream reporters who cover his, at this time, unofficial candidacy for the White House in ’12.

Let’s try to see this story through the eyes of a very specific voter, some would say the worst possible voter.

So you are a typical evangelical Protestant in, oh, South Carolina who is highly active in state Republican affairs there and, well, across the Bible Belt. Whenever you hear the name “Mitt Romney” you immediately think that he is:

(1) That Yankee with all the money.
(2) The guy who did semi-government health-care in Massachusetts before President Barack Obama took the idea national.
(3) The sort-of conservative Yankee who took a long time to make up his mind of moral and social issues.
(4) The guy with the strong jaw and great hair.
(5) The Mormon candidate.
(6) All of the above.
(7) Any of the first four options, but not No. 5.

Apparently, if you are an editor at Time magazine the answer is No. 7.

I base that conclusion on a new Time story, entitled “Election 2012: Mitt Romney Readies a Different Kind of Campaign,” that is supposed to be about the hurdles that he faces this time around — based on the outcomes of previous primaries. While it is clear, at this point, that there is no reason whatsoever for religion to dominate the story, the closest it comes to even mentioning Romney’s sincere and vital Mormon faith is a brief aside about the family Christmas card.

At his first two events in New Hampshire, his former state-level campaign strategists hovered in the back of the room, apparently ready to dive in. Soon after, supporters got the Romney-family Christmas card, which pictured the candidate with his wife and 14 of his 15 grandchildren, one of whom seemed to be crying. “Guess which grandchild heard that Papa might run again?” ran the caption.

Then again, readers with any memory of the GOP race to 2008 were also sure to flinch when they read this chunk of the story.

The most damning indictment of Romney’s 2008 campaign came from his archrival, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who began telling a story to reporters a few weeks before he beat Romney in the Iowa caucuses. It was the tale of a wealthy man who opened a dog-food company, hiring the best nutritionist, the best marketing people and the best sales force in the industry. When the product was released to great fanfare, sales flagged, so the wealthy man gathered his staff and demanded to know why. “There was a long silence,” Huckabee would say. “And then finally somebody in the back of the room said, ‘Because the dogs won’t eat the darn stuff, sir.’ ”

So why, pray tell, are many GOP dogs declining to eat what Romney is selling?

Meanwhile, we are, of course, talking about the Rev. Mike Huckabee and the reason he is Romney’s “archrival” is that they both need the support of religious conservatives and, the last time they faced off, the Southern Baptist candidate did not bite his tongue and keep silent when offered a chance to discuss the Mormon issue. Surely you recall that rather provocative incident? And Comedy Central was rather fond of punching the religion card, as well.

Whatever. I am sure that many GOP voters have gotten over that and that they have moved on. I am sure that strategists in the Romney campaign are not discussing this issue and, perhaps, even working hard to find the right kind of stump-speech language that will reach out to as many religious voters as possible (since, after all, there are many evangelical and Catholic Republicans who have, at one time or another in the past, endorsed Romney). The potential (cough, cough) candidate may even be trying out that language during his many test flights in New Hampshire, like the events covered in the Time article.

But there is no need to even mention that issue in a story about the challenges facing Romney. I am sure that religious and cultural issues will not play a major role in the upcoming campaign. Besides, it’s best not to talk about religion, whenever possible. Religious issues make simple political stories too complicated.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Susan73

    Your Point??

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    My point is that a story about the hurdles facing Romney the candidate is incomplete without mentioning his struggles — whether they are just or unjust — to connect with the powerful religious wing of the GOP.

    The religious issue remains a hurdle, especially in red-state America and the South, in particular. Thus, it is part of the story.

  • http://www.ConservativeRepublicans.com Jed

    The irony here is how impressively conservative Mormon principles actually are. … Whatever one’s view on these issues, a little study of each other’s faiths would do away with the ignorance that is just as much at the heart of religious disputations as not getting around much had to do with racism. I am pulling for Mitt in 2012 and think the principles of religion should be viewed as his strength and the weakness of his detractors.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Spiking!

    This is not the place for arguments about Romney’s religion or politics.

  • Murdock

    tmatt: I am Mormon and was a campaign contributor and campaign volunteer for Romney’s 2008 run and will be again for his 2012 run. When I read the Time magazine article I thought: “Whaddya know? Not one mention of Mormon.” Then, I thought: “Maybe progress?” Now, after reading your post, I am brought back to reality, but I am not without hope.

    tmatt: In the picture with your bio, are you the guy with the coat and tie or the one with the open shirt? …

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Still spiking away.

    If I allowed Mormons and anti-Mormons to post at will we’d have a really big stack of comments here.

    Murdock:

    Romney IS making progress on the faith issue, but it still is a major issue in parts of the country. He also has to find a way to say, “We do have significant differences in how we approach faith and I know some of you sincerely don’t think that I am a true Christian. But I’m running for president, not preacher. I need your trust and your votes.”

    Now, if he said something like that, how would the MSM report it? Would many reporters actually recognize an appeal for religious tolerance — despite real differences — if they heard one?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Oh, right. This is not the place to bash Huckabee and Southern Baptists, either.

  • Jerry

    Murdock makes an interesting point. I have some sympathy for the position that religion can be made too much of a central focus. Yes, that is rare, very rare, but I am open to that being the case for Romney. And given how many stories I read about Romney’s religion the last time around, if it’s going to be mentioned again, there should be something new brought to the table, not a rerun with a few words changed.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a Mass. Catholic voter who voted for Romney over a quintissential Irish Catholic candidate for governor, it has amazed me how, nation-wide, Mitt Romney’s religion is such a big deal to some. But is it really a big deal to the voters OR is it a BIG DEAL to the news media which seems more obsessed by his religion than the voters? …

    For some reason here in Mass. — a very Catholic state — no one seemed much interested in Romney’s Mormon religion, just his expressed stands on public policies. In the last debate before the state election for governor, he came across as more pro-life than his opponent (Romney was against the state having the right to secretly sneak a girl away from school to an abortion clinic without her parents being informed while his opponent argued against parental rights.) …

    If my memory is correct, through all the controversy there was very little in the media here about his Mormon religion — it was just one big non-issue. …

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Just spiked another five or six posts that have nothing to do with the actual content of the post.

    Remember that the TIME piece is, essentially, about the hurdles that Romney faces as he prepares to re-enter presidential politics in the context of the GOP primaries.

    I am saying that if this is the subject of the story, it is hard to ignore the fact that GOP folks are divided about his faith, especially in the Bible Belt (where some do endorse him, yet many do not).

    That is not the central focus of the story — as my post clearly states. Health care issues are, frankly, going to get much if not most of the ink and justifiably so.

    I am simply saying that — in terms of the facts of the story — religion remains an element. It is one hurdle that he still faces. It was strange to see the editors tip toe around that, especially with the Huckabee quote.

    And, Deacon, I admit that the story is SET in the context of New England. The faith issue does not appear to be a fact in the story there. I only questioned the silence about the hurdles he faces in the context of the national GOP, with religious conservatives and the South as major pieces in the puzzle.

  • CarlH

    tmatt,

    I think Romney already gave the speech you say you want–but I guess he didn’t give the one you wanted him to give and/or you seem to want him to wear a scarlet letter of some sort.

    I also agree with your point that, given some of the emphasis of the Time article (including the Huckabee anecdote), it is unusual that it doesn’t even mention what Huckabee was going after. That being said, however, the tone of your post suggests that in the hypothetical poll you concocted, when you hear Romney’s name you might immediately think “only No. 5″.

    For what it’s worth, John Schroeder (an acknowledged Romney supporter, who is also an Evangelical Christian) has two posts at Article IV Blog discussing the article in question, the second being a reaction to your post:

    GOP POTUS 2012 Exploded Into View (1/24/11) (scroll down to the to the “Mitt Romney” subheading)

    The Petulant Press (1/25/11)

    Personally, I think journalists, including (especially?) those on the religion beat, ought focus on explaining religion–including providing meaningful of when, why and why should and shouldn’t matter (especially in politics)–than continuing to fan flames in an overheated pot.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    CarlH:

    No mind reading please. Clearly you are not good at it.

    By the way, want to take another shot at your final paragraph? I cannot make any sense out of it, in terms of grammar.

    My own answer in the hypothetical poll is (6), all of the above, if one of them fits me. I was describing — ONCE AGAIN — the hurdles Romney has faces and still faces among some GOP voters and leaders in parts of the country.

    And, once again, this is a post about journalism and the challenge of covering Romney, including covering those who oppose his candidacy.

    One other point: Romney’s very interesting, if understandably vague, religion speech won him some supporters, but not others. That reality is a challenge to journalists who cover him. This is not an all for or all opposed situation. The reality he faces is really complex.

  • John Pack Lambert

    There is at least one Mormon member of the South Carolina state legislature, and he is a Republican. The Mormon/Mitt issue is more complexed than some people admit.

    Another factor that tmatt has ignored is that National Right to Life opposed Romney in 2008. He did claim to be pro-life, but they did not accept his claim as such. This may well have been the biggest thing that hurt him in multiple campaigns.

    I also think that with the election of Nikki Haley as governor of South Carolian, and with the fact that I pointed out yesterday, that contrary to some people’s beliefs only 37% of Alabama’s population is Baptist and even that is a 10-year-old stat, it seems that maybe people should re-think the stereotypes of the South they spin-out.

    Actually the election of Representatives Tim Scott of South Carolina and Allen West of Florida might represent a bigger change. Florida has long been seen as “south of the south” and has a long history of Republicans electing Cuban’s to both the senate and the house (and the election of Mormon Paula Hawkins, the first senator to have a living husband and a Republican no less, I bring this up because one theory is southern Republicans will not vote for Mormons) so Florida electing a black Republican maybe can be ignored.

    On the other hand South Carolina sending a black Republican to congress, especially one who defeated a son of Strom Thurmond in the primary, is of some note.

    Really observant people will point out the state legislative district in South Carolina represented by a Mormon is the one that includes Myrtle Beach, which is in many ways in South Carolina but not of South Carolina. However we still need to ask “how much of South Carolina is of South Carolina”. It seems people are often perpetuating stereotypes against the evidence. I know North Carolina now has a noticeable number of Latinos. My impression is that South Carolina does not as much as Georgia and North Carolina, but the evidence of where there are Mormon Spanish-speaking congregations suggests there has been a growth of Spanish-speaking residents in the north-west of South Carolina. How large of a population there is in that region I have no real way of knowing.

    This leads to another interesting observation. Mitt Romney’s changing position on immigration is a possible liability for him.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Deacon Bresnahan,
    I think you are pointing us towards the big question. I doubt anyone knowns the full answer because the media has been so obsessed with talking about Mitt Romney’s religion and so un-willing to ask why his religion is a big issue.

    My first guess is that Romney’s religion became a big issue because it was used by Huckabee to destroy the Romney campaign. However actually as early as the summer of 2009 the New Republic wrote an article where the author basically said Romney could not be trusted as president because Mormons owe top allegiance to the President of the Church not the constitution. This was essentially the “Kennedy will answer to the Vatican” argument repeated.

    On the other hand Huckabee was only able to use the argument of religion against Romney because so many Baptists and other Evangelical Protestants have such a deep anti-pathy for Mormons. Maybe the issue with Istook and Hawkins and other Mormons elected in the greater south is their religion never came up. Still, that is a good question, why is the religion of the president an issue.

  • CarlH

    tmatt,

    Sorry about my scrambled final paragraph and I apologize for my feeble attempt at mind-reading (in the future I’ll leave that to real journalists).

    As to my final paragraph, even I realize that without even some drastic editing beyond restoring inadvertently omitted words and other typographical faux pas, it would remain rather obtuse so I will not attempt a quick correction.

    However, my point was that, because the “Romney, a Mormon” angle was so overdone in the last election cycle (by pundits and journalists, even more than opponents), nitpicking about its absence in a single national story (even one in which one might have expected it–as I acknowledged in my original comment) seems to partake more of fanning the flames of sectarian intolerance than of seeking to bring light to legitimate questions about the place of religion in politics, or even about the reality that Romney faces, That reality is an aspect of his campaign which journalists cannot and should not ignore, but neither should it be treated as if it were a required element of every story.

  • Jettboy

    Its about time his Mormonism wasn’t mentioned in a news article. No other candidate, even the very Jewish Leiberman, has had his religion mentioned every single time he was mentioned even in articles that have nothing to do with the subject. I doubt very highly Romney’s religion would be a liability if the newspapers and Huckabee didn’t make it a liability for no good reason. Maybe “Times” for once realized the journalistic scam that the subject was and thoughtfully left it out.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Jettboy:

    But, of course, the article is not simply about Romney. It’s about the hurdles he faces as a GOP candidate — in an era in which one cannot do that without coming to terms with evangelical conservatives and the Sunbelt.

    CarlH:

    But surely you would admit that the realities he faces as a candidate should included — various realities, briefly noted — in an article about the hurdles and realities that he faces as a candidate?

    In other words, it is not simply an article about Romney. It is an article about Romney attempting to learn lessons from the past and restart his national level campaign IN THE GOP PRIMARIES.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I still think the question of why South Carolina Republicans will elect a Mormon to the legislature and Oklahoma Republicans will give the gubanatorial nomination to a Mormon but apparently Romney’s Mormonism disqualifies him from the Republican Presidential nomination in those states needs to be considered.

    Of course Istook is a pro-life, pro-family conservative, with good cnservative credentials, local connections and such.

    Since Tmatt brought up South Carolina there is another issue worth voicing. How does Mrs. Haley’s victory fit into the chances for Romney? True, she is a Protestant Christian now, and onverted from Sikhism several years ago, but the attempts to use her religious background to kill her campaign failed.


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