As we learn in The Real Romney, Mitt Romney has performed many admirable acts of charity for members of his church in dire straits. But the flip side of this hands-on engagement is whether, in his various positions in the church, he countenanced or enforced its discriminatory treatment of blacks and women, practices it only started to end in earnest well after he had entered adulthood. It wasn’t until 1978, when he was in his thirties, that blacks were given full status in his church—an embarrassing fact that Romney tried to finesse in his last campaign by speaking emotionally on Meet the Press of seeing his father join Martin Luther King on a civil-rights march. (The Boston Phoenix would soon report that this was another lie about his past.) In the seventies, Romney’s church also applied its institutional muscle to battling the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment for women. And these days, no major faith puts more money where its mouth is in battling civil rights for gay Americans. Its actions led Stuart Matis, a faithful graduate of Brigham Young University who’d completed his missionary service, to commit suicide on the steps of a Mormon chapel in 2000 in anguished protest of his dehumanized status within his religion. Unchastened, the Mormon church enlisted its congregants to put over Proposition 8 in California in 2008. Mormons contributed more than $20 million to the effort and constituted an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the campaign’s original volunteers. Romney, who endorsed gay rights when running as a moderate against Kennedy in 1994, has swung so far in the other direction that he ridiculed gay couples when pandering to South Carolina Republicans a few years ago. (“Some are actually having children born to them!” he said with horror.) Did some of his yet undivulged Mormon philanthropy support the Prop 8 campaign?
Even if these questions yield benign answers, we know that Romney’s faith has contributed to his self-segregation from the actual “real streets of America.” His closest circle comes from within his faith, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the fact remains that today the American Mormon population is still only 1 percent black. (Those recent television promo spots marketing LDS as a fount of diversity are a smoke screen.) Much as the isolating cocoon of Romney’s wealth can lead him to dismiss $347,327 in speaking fees as “not very much” (to take just one recent example of his cluelessness about how the other 99 percent lives), so the demographic isolation imposed by his religion takes its own political toll. When he’s forced to interact with the America beyond his hermetically sealed Mormon orbit, we get instant YouTube classics like his attempt to get down and rap with black voters on Martin Luther King Day four years ago by quoting “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
Given Romney’s maladroitness as a retail politician, the failure of even his own fans to convey any enthusiasm for him, and the 75 percent of his party that questions his conservatism, it’s hard to fathom how he kept being judged inevitable by so many observers just as he was losing two of the first three election-year contests. Even a normally hardheaded, data-driven analyst like the Times’ poll maven Nate Silver couldn’t resist being swept up by this narrative, going beyond the numbers to write in a January 16 post that the 90 percent odds given a Romney nomination by the betting market Intrade “may if anything be too conservative.” (Six days later, after South Carolina, Silver wrote, “Perhaps, then, there is profound resistance among Republican voters to nominating Mr. Romney after all.”) Much of the Romney inflation, naturally, has to do with his good fortune in having such a splintered and screwy scrum of opponents. Often we’re told that he “looks like a president” (that would be a pre-Obama president). We also hear constantly about his message discipline, his organization, and his money—attributes that matter more to political consultants and the pundits who pal around with them than to an angry electorate trying to dig out of a recession. To the political class, Romney is the most electable candidate because his mealy-mouthed blandness is what will lure that much-apotheosized yet indistinct band of moderates and independents to his side. But as Michael Kinsley long ago joked that Al Gore was an old person’s idea of a young person, so Mitt Romney is a political hack’s idea of an electable conservative president. Voters may have another view, and certainly did in South Carolina, where exit polls found that those who most valued a candidate’s electability rallied to Newt.
But if the power of Mitt’s money and the power of pack journalism helped contribute to his status as indestructible, the power of denial at the higher reaches of the GOP did even more so. The Republican Establishment has been adamant in insisting that economic populism and class warfare do not infect their own ranks, and that economic inequality is strictly a lefty and Democratic gripe. If that’s the case, then Romney’s strong identification with the one percent stigmatized by Occupy Wall Street would indeed present no problem. But a January Pew poll found that a majority of both Republicans and Independents now join Democrats in feeling that there are “strong conflicts” between the rich and poor in America; a recent NBC News–Wall Street Journal survey found that Republican voters were just as likely as Democrats to blame “Wall Street bankers” most of all for the country’s economic problems. It’s hardly a stretch that some of that blame might attach itself to Romney, especially after Gingrich turned a spotlight on his Bain résumé.