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By Jay Cost

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On Romney's "Mormon Speech"

Bob Novak had an interesting column about Mitt Romney yesterday. The subject concerns his Mormonism. Novak argues:

Although disagreement remains within the Romney camp, the consensus is that he must address the Mormon question with a speech deploring bias. According to campaign sources, a speech has been written, though 90 percent of it could still be changed. It is not yet determined exactly what he will say or at what point he will deliver a speech that could determine the political outcome of 2008.

Romney would seem the near perfect Republican candidate: articulate, handsome, able to raise funds and write his own checks. He has become sufficiently conservative on social issues where he once strayed leftward. He is the only Republican candidate unequivocally opposed to gay marriage and the only one who signed the no tax increase pledge. He is acceptable enough to non-Republicans to have been elected governor of very "blue" Massachusetts and then, unlike three GOP predecessors, actually governed as a Republican.

But last year I began to hear from loyal Republicans that they could never vote for Romney because of his religion. When I asked Romney about this in April 2006, he was in denial. I subsequently wrote on April 27, 2006, that Romney must make "a stronger response than he now envisions" -- a declaration that "the imposition of a religious test on U.S. politics is unfair, unreasonable and un-American." That was disputed by e-mails sent to me by self-professed Republicans who insisted Mormonism is a cult.

I have two concerns with the strategy that Novak outlines here.

First, I think Romney may have waited too long. The "speech defusing the Mormon issue" probably should have been given in the summer. The campaign season is here - and so the speech will take Romney off message at the time when being on message is most important. On the other hand, giving the speech in the summer might have meant that it fell upon deaf ears - as voters were not paying enough attention. So, I can appreciate the Romney campaign's logic for waiting - but they need to give this speech soon. What really concerns me is that that 90% of it is still up in the air. This is a bad sign. Even if they were going to wait to give the speech in, say, November - they should have had it firmed up by now. That is a sign to me that they still just do not know what to do.

Second, and more importantly, I am skeptical of the tone that Romney seems to be planning to take. At least as Novak describes it, it appears as though Romney will say in so many words that anti-Mormon voters are religious bigots, and they should just get over it. I think that this line could work with voters who do not have a problem with Romney's faith - but I can't see how this will do anything but offend those voters who are skeptical of it. It is essentially a moral accusation. Romney seems to be saying: "Be ashamed of yourselves...and vote for me!"

I think this is misguided. Most obviously, it makes for bad politics. Romney needs to woo these skeptical voters - and a response that accuses them of bias is simply not going to woo them.

What should Romney do instead? I think that he needs to recognize that there is, or at least may be, some validity to the concerns of these voters - and that he should address them in a way that is not reducible to accusations. Now, by this I do not mean that Romney needs to defend his religious beliefs. I also am not making any claims about the validity of Mormon beliefs. What I am saying is that Romney needs to recognize that the feelings of these voters may not be reducible to simple intolerance.

The relationship between Mormons and non-Mormons over the years has been difficult. The hostility of the 19th century has given way to a live-and-let-live relationship in the 21st. Today, most non-Mormons do not really know much about Mormon beliefs. Thus, it seems to me unsurprising and understandable that non-Mormons to whom religion is important are skeptical of voting for a Mormon. People are often suspicious of things about which they know little. So, I think Romney needs to be a little bit charitable here - and do something other than rail against religious "bias." I think his speech should recognize that Mormons and non-Mormons have had a complicated relationship that is still evolving - and that a lack of knowledge about each other, rather than simple religious bigotry, may explain some of the skepticism he has encountered.

This is not to say that his speech should be the Cliff Notes for the Book of Mormon. It is not Romney's responsibility to explain his beliefs. Nor is it his job to defend them. The Mormon Church does a fine job of both. What I would like to see Romney do is acknowledge that a divide exists, and that the feelings of doubt and even suspicion on both sides are understandable in light of it. Non-Mormons just do not know much about Mormonism - and so their suspicions might be the product of something other than "bias."

In so doing, I think he can flip the whole thing on its head. He can acknowledge and respect the concerns that non-Mormons have about Mormon theology. He can then go on to argue that, as far as politics goes, these differences simply do not matter. While Mormons and non-Mormons might have different theological beliefs, those different beliefs nevertheless point to identical values, which is what really matters in politics. For instance, religious voters who care about family values might be skeptical about Romney because of his beliefs; in response, Romney can acknowledge their questions about his beliefs, but then go on to argue that he - not in spite of those beliefs, but because of them - is the most pro-family candidate in the country.

Interestingly, this is similar to the strategy that Giuliani is pursuing with abortion. Giuliani continues to avow a pro-choice position. Nevertheless, he has signaled that, as far as politics goes, this does not matter. He does not like a judiciary that has run amok - and he plans to appoint strict constructionists to the court who will work to overturn Roe. So, while there are different moral opinions between social conservatives and Giuliani - as a political matter, those differences are just academic.

If, on the other hand, Romney argues that his poll numbers are so low because the good folks down at the evangelical mega-church are not really good folks, that they are instead bigots - he'll look like a cry baby.

I am going to watch this speech very carefully. For a while, I have had the suspicion that, while Romney understands the nuts and bolts of politics, he misses many of its subtleties. He reminds me of myself back when I used to play the piano. I'd study up on a piece by Mozart - and eventually I could play it with great technical proficiency. However, I never could play it beautifully. All of the notes hit in the right order - but for some strange reason, they never seemed to sound right. That is the impression I have had of Romney for a while. He's doing everything right, but it just is not sounding good to my ears. So, while I do not have a "religion test" (which, incidentally, Novak wrongly argues is "unconstitutional" - it is unconstitutional for the government to have a religious test, but voters can base their votes on whatever damned fool idea they choose!), I do think I have a "religious response test."

-Jay Cost