Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
So far, it seems that former Senator Rick Santorum is having his Paul Tsongas/Bill Bradley Moment. Remember them? Each of these former senators enjoyed a momentary surge when running against a flawed candidate on the Democratic side. In 1992, Tsongas was the Massachusetts media darling who had a brief moment in the political sun, attacking Bill Clinton as a “Pander Bear,” with pander coming out as “panda,” thanks to Tsongas’s Massachusetts accent. New Jersey senator Bill Bradley was the former New York Knicks basketball star and Rhodes Scholar who distracted voters momentarily when Al Gore ran as the inevitable Democratic candidate in 2000. Both Tsongas and Bradley were more popular with reporters than with voters, particularly as they prolonged campaigns that threatened to end too quickly, given the media need for an extended fight.
Santorum is now proving useful to reporters anxious to drag out the Republican campaign, even as most reporters abhor his cultural conservatism. Tsongas and Bradley were each high priests in “Our Lady of the Principled, Priggish Politician,” appearing to waft above the normal political fray. Their fleeting surges fed mass American fantasies about politics as a higher calling. Santorum lacks that appeal—or much popularity with reporters, many of whom view him as a puritanical prig. Republican voters in conservative caucus states like his membership in a real Christian church, the Roman Catholic Church. In this election, that excites Protestant bigots who prefer a Catholic to a Mormon president.
While the bigotry from the Right against Mormonism has attracted attention, this bigotry is also being reinforced from the Left. The unfair obstacle Mitt Romney faces due to prejudice against his community of faith has not stirred enough indignation from the Left or the Right. On the Right, the passivity reflects the deep prejudice among the bigots who view Mormonism as an abomination, not a Christian denomination. On the Left, it reflects a pro-Obama protectiveness laced with an instinctive anti-Mormonism, based on its conservatism and strangeness. It is definitely a red-state religion.
A recent “Room for Debate” among New York Times guest bloggers asking “What is it about Mormons” reflected the kind of static Romney endures from those who would normally be primed to see the underlying hostility against him as a civil rights issue. The five experts the Times solicited about Mormonism were unflattering, to one degree or another. Sally Denton, the author of "The Money and the Power wrote about the Mormon church’s “Male-Dominated World,” with the tag line: “Given that Mitt Romney is a high church official and not just a member, voters are right to be circumspect,” Jana Riess, who wrote Flunking Sainthood, asked “Can a Candidate Be Too Perfect?” explaining that “Voters want someone they can identify with. Historically, that does not bode well for Mormons.” Ian Williams, a refugee from Mormonism, said: “It May Look Good on Paper…. But some of us who have experienced the Mormon life firsthand would rather choose a messy, colorful America.” And “There Is a Dark Side to Mormonism,” warned another author, Jane Barnes, saying “When it comes to the social agenda, the Mormon church does not respect separation of church and state.” Finally, readers learned about “Mormons’ Double Legacy” from Professor Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, who said “Just as Mormons seem to be ideal Americans, they also provoke typically American fears.”
In fairness, the short entries raised issues that are shaping the contemporary conversation about the man who still remains the leading Republican candidate. But it is instructive to substitute the words “Mormon” and “Mormonism” in judging whether the overall impression provided enlightenment or bred bigotry. I doubt the Times would have run a debate asking: “What is it about” blacks or gays or Catholics or women or Jews?" Would it have been acceptable to write in 1960 about John Kennedy’s Catholicism: Given that the Kennedys have met the Pope and support the church, “voters are right to be circumspect,” or in 2000 during Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman’s stint as the first Jew on a major ticket, that “There is a Dark Side” to Judaism? How about an analysis in 2008 that “just as” African Americans like Barack Obama, “seem to be ideal Americans, they also provoke typically American fears?”
Standing alone, each of these articles analyzes the fears of others. But their cumulative effect together, with no full-throated defense of Mormonism, created this noxious impression. Mitt Romney has been careful to downplay his religion, emphasizing that he is a Jesus-believing, God-fearing Christian. Given what he is experiencing left and right, it seems like the shrewd but unfortunate strategy to follow, especially while the media and voters are still dragging out the nomination battle saga with the Tsantorum Tsurge.
Everyone’s having a grand old time mocking Mitt Romney for finally “admitting”: “I’m not very concerned about the very poor.” The quotation has been bandied about as proof that Romney is a greedy, unfeeling capitalist. And, in a presidential campaign which emphasizes optics over good sense, Romney has already retreated, saying he “misspoke.”
In fairness, the quotation was taken out of context. Romney said: “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America—the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.” In other words, Romney did not intend to convey contempt for the poor. He was saying that there are programs dedicated to protecting the poor but it is the middle class that is being completely ignored.
This “gaffe” and Romney’s other rich-related verbal stumbles recall the unhappy political career of Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush’s linguistically challenged vice president, who was dismissed as stupid for all kinds of doozies. Remember the time, when he was in Hawaii, and said, "When I meet with world leaders, what's striking—whether it's in Europe or here in Asia..." even though Hawaii’s a chain of islands far from the Asian land mass, and is at best called Oceania. Or the time he said, "We're the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad" when it was the transcontinental railroad. Or the time he said, “The Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries.” Or, my personal favorite, the time he said in Beaverton, Oregon: “I've now been in 57 states—I think one left to go.”
Don’t remember Dan Quayle saying these? Well, you're right—it was Barack Obama. These and other verbal pratfalls, compiled by Daniel Kurtzman, are not all that well-known. This is because even his opponents agree that Barack Obama is smart and eloquent. When he stumbles, most people understand that anyone forced to talk as often as he is before cameras is bound to make the occasional error.
Romney on the wealth issue, and Quayle on the intelligence issue, ran into what I call the “O-Ring Factor.” Just as that particular part on the space shuttle Challenger eroded only because of specific weather conditions, most gaffes only stick where politicians are vulnerable. Obama is rarely tongue-tied, so he can get away with the occasional vocabulary or linguistic malfunction. But reporters and rivals loved questioning Quayle’s intelligence, just as reporters and rivals are now enjoying questioning Romney’s sensitivity to the other 99.9 percent of Americans less wealthy than he is.
Unfortunately, such pouncing comes at a price. It sets candidates on edge, making all of them even more superficial and artificial. None of us would fare very well with cameras recording our every statement. This campaign is seeking a chief executive not a robot. Let’s have an honest debate about the impact of Romney’s wealth on his worldview—but spare us this tomfoolery, or Dan Quaylery.