National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Mitt Romney

The Democrats could wish for nothing better than for Gov. Mike Huckabee to get the Republican nomination for president next year. It’s kind of like Virginia Democrats hoping that former Gov. Jim Gilmore wins the GOP nomination for Senate.

In both cases, Huckabee and Gilmore represent the dying, Neanderthal faction in the GOP which may enjoy one more flare up within their own, increasingly marginalized party before sinking into the political tar pits for good.

Mainstream Republicans, including many with solid conservative tendencies, are aware of this, and they’re mightily vexed. They are now running around looking for an alternative candidate, but all three who were in the field as more moderate alternatives awhile back have veered off. Sen. John McCain was one until, apparently, something in the water on one of his trips to Iraq turned him into an angry rug-chewing defender of the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation over there.

Rudy Giuliani continues to be one, but his so-called “negatives” are running higher than the cholesterol level in a Big Mac.

Most recently, Gov. Mitt Romney had the opportunity to seize that banner for the GOP, but he squandered it in what will be remembered as a Waterloo moment not too different from what brought his father down as a viable presidential candidate in 1968.

Michigan Gov. George Romney took a tour of Vietnam and came back insisting that the U.S. military brass covered up what was really going on, and would not give him an honest assessment. He said they’d tried to “brainwash” him over there, and the great umbrage that erupted in his GOP at that shocking word killed his chances overnight.

Now, his son Mitt’s great strategic error that will cost him the nomination was manifested in his speech on religion last week from College Station, Texas.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: Mitt is a Mormon, and more power to him for that. When he was elected governor of Massachusetts, voters not only didn’t mind that he was a Mormon, they also didn’t mind that he was a Republican in that predominantly Democratic state. That’s because he struck middle-of-the-road chords, in terms of policy, that voters could support.

Had he pitched his candidacy on the national stage to the same type of constituency within the GOP, again his personal faith would not have been an issue. But he decided not to, miscalculating the diminishing power of the religious right not only in the nation, but in the GOP, itself.

It is as bad a blunder for him as it was for Howard Dean in 2004, when he walked his campaign fueled by incredible grass-roots energy into the buzz-saw of a controlled, party bureaucrat-dominated caucus process in Iowa as his first test.

Had Romney pitched his religious “rich tapestry” speech to a more moderate audience, with attendant adjustments such as more respect for the rights of individuals to be secularists, if they wish, and for the separation of church and state, it would have been a wonderful and memorable affirmation of core American values.

It would have been, indeed, along the lines of what John F. Kennedy said in his great speech on the role of his Catholic religion in politics in 1960.

But, unfortunately, Romney pitched his speech to the wrong crowd, and that’s why not only did it come out markedly different than Kennedy’s in content, but also unlike Kennedy, it ruined instead of boosted his chances to be president.

To me, it was almost laughable watching Romney trying so hard to convert the fundamentalist right wing to a more open and affirming embrace of the notion that there are multiple religious pathways to the divine. He was preaching a very different sermon than parishioners in right-wing fundamentalist churches hear every Sunday morning.

The message in those churches insists that the one and only way to salvation is through professing their church’s interpretation of the Bible as the literal word of God.

The religious right has held together in politics, even with internal sharp doctrinal differences, because the intolerant and exclusivist claims of its different religious groups are kept in the background while they work for common political goals.

But Romney, because of his speech, made that impossible, at least for himself. He forced that issue to the forefront. The result has been a sudden, explosive surge for the Southern Baptist preacher Huckabee, which can be traced directly to Romney’s speech.