One would think that a presidential candidate who has been a successful businessman and governor, identifies as a Conservative, is a dedicated husband and father to an attractive, photogenic, drama-free family, is articulate (and, oddly, without a teleprompter!) and cogent in his presentations, and has a range of policy positions that are esteemed by most of his potential electorate, would be wholeheartedly embraced by that segment of the population. Yet, Mitt Romney seems unable to seal the deal, and notwithstanding the South Carolina primary results, it is unlikely that will change in the immediate future although he remains the prohibitive favorite to ultimately win the Republican nomination for president. Why the reluctance?
The real reason is distressing to admit, so let’s first examine the clichés.
Romneycare, according to many, remains an albatross, as Obama claimed it (of course, disingenuously) as an inspiration for his own health care debacle in the making. Romneycare included an individual mandate – requiring everyone to maintain health insurance or pay a penalty – as does Obamacare in its current form. But Romney’s arguments are plausible – what a state uses as its model is not necessarily proper for the country as a whole. Massachusetts had particular needs, and the solution, while violative of one’s constitutional rights as they currently understood (and the Court takes up that issue in two months), was geared to a Massachusetts solution. One who does not like that mandate and does not want to spend the money on health insurance can simply move to another state. Many people are already fleeing high tax states like New Jersey (the highest in the nation), New York and California and moving to Florida, Texas and Nevada. So, states have the luxury of experimenting with different programs that, if done on a federal level, might undo the delicate balance of relations between government and citizen, not to mention bankrupt the country in the process. I give Romney a pass on his health-care plan, believe him that he would repeal Obamacare (if the Supreme Court doesn’t beat him to it), and recognize also the inherent limitations under which Romney worked in a far-left state like Massachusetts. Dealing as a Republican governor with an overwhelmingly-Democratic legislature is no easy task; consult Chris Christie, a Romney endorser, for further proof.
Others point to his shifting positions on issues over the years – abortions, same sex unions, immigration, and who knows what else? Certainly, a change in one’s views is not as significant as a change in one’s values. Normal people do re-think their cherished views from time to time; otherwise, we stop growing and learning. Abortion is a critical area in this genre, because it reflects a value more than just an opinion. Can a person change? Well, there is no shortage of politicians who were anti-abortion and changed to the more politically-expedient liberal view – Al Gore and Bill Clinton are just two examples. That Romney flipped in the other direction may reflect political expedience as well – or what he claims, an evolution of his views as he witnessed the consequences of the pro-abortion culture.
A few have nastily criticized the Romney’s for looking too perfect. They seem like an all-American family – wholesome, clean-cut, perfect hair, happily-married, children married and producing grandchildren, devoted to their faith, prosperous and white as white can be. There are no personal skeletons as far as one can tell. I visited Salt Lake City and the Mormon center not long ago – and they all look like that, almost cookie-cutter, smiling faces and cheerful demeanors. (Not the city itself, which has one of the highest homicide rates in America.) The term “wholesome” grates on some people, mostly because of their own hang-ups. It shouldn’t. In an era – hey, in a week – in which politicians’ foibles and shortcomings are on full public display, there is something refreshing in the confidence (tenuous though it should be for any human being) that Mitt Romney is the patriarch of a family with good values, and that he lives the good values he espouses.
The most recent kerfuffle concerned Romney’ successful management of Bain Capital and the enormous profits he generated buying, managing and then selling companies, which is the entire purpose of the private equity market. This attack, generated by Newt Gingrich who should (and does) know better, appeals to the ignorant emotionalists among us but not to anyone who has actually been in business or understands capitalism. Simply put, companies that were bought by Bain would have failed without the investment of capital. Some could not be saved – that is the inherent risk of the private equity market – and so Bain lost money on them. But they made much more money on other companies, maximizing profits for their shareholders and – yes – creating jobs. These were companies that had obviously exhausted traditional sources of capital – no banks would lend them money. But Bain’s successes – Staples, Sports Authority, etc. – speak for themselves.
Of course, Newt knows better. But he is exhibiting in many ways the stereotypical conduct of many adopted children who keep looking for love and acceptance (sometimes in the wrong place) over and over again and detest any form of rejection. The good news is that Romney was bound to be attacked in this regard by the populist left, the Occupy Wall Street crowd that are a big Obama base (whatever they might say). These rounds have already been fired, and that chamber is now empty. They will certainly re-load and fire again – but the argument will have lost its novelty. And let the election be – as it should – a referendum on capitalism and the role of government. That is a good debate to have in this environment.
In essence, Romney says the right things in the right way and espouses traditional Republican views. Is he a perfect candidate? Of course not – no candidate is perfect, all are flawed, all commentators on the candidates are also flawed, Obama is certainly flawed and vulnerable, the best and most credentialed candidate doesn’t always win, the American people are not geniuses who never err in their presidential choices, and just because someone wins does not mean he is the best person for the job and will necessarily succeed. So why the hesitation on Romney?
It is impossible to escape the conclusion that his natural supporters are uncomfortable with his Mormonism. It is sad to say this, but polls have shown that up to 42% of white evangelicals would not vote for a Mormon. More, by a large percentage, would vote for a Jew. Jews don’t realize this, but Mormons are widely considered by mainstream Christians to be non-Christians, and Mormonism is construed as a cult. It has been suggested that Romney’s religion, which he does not wear on his sleeve, is one reason he is reluctant to release his tax returns too early. As a good Mormon, he is likely to tithe, and therefore contribute a sizable amount of his income to his church. To evangelicals – as in South Carolina and much of the South – that would be a red flag.
For sure, the Constitution bans any religious test for office, but reality usually trumps theory. Rick Santorum, staunch Catholic, typically had one of the classiest answers to a typically-inappropriate media question some months back. “Do you consider Mitt Romney a Christian?” Santorum answered: “It’s none of my business. If he considers himself a Christian, that is good enough for me. Beyond that, it is not my business.” Good answer.
Jews and Mormons should have a natural affinity. It is fascinating that the Mormon experience borrows heavily from familiar Jewish territory, including their foundational story of persecution, exodus and revelation. Mormons have often felt a closeness to Jews, even if some of their practices – mass conversion of the deceased, the Center on the Mount of Olives – have irritated. It is hard to imagine any Jew who would not vote for Romney because of his religion, but it is also exasperating that many people still maintain a (private) religious test for anyone. Piety is better than secularism, especially piety of the American sort that has always been open, tolerant, and respectful of all faiths.
As the field narrows further, the choice will become clearer, and a greater comfort level with the eventual candidate will ensue. Gingrich is the man of ideas but of volatile character, Santorum the eager, sincere, up-and-coming striver with traditional values, and Romney – steady, stable, secure, distinguished, successful in all his endeavors to date, and easy to imagine as the next president.