Romney's JFK moment

Washington is atwitter. Mitt Romney will give a "JFK speech" accounting for his Mormonism the way then-Sen. John F. Kennedy dealt with his Catholicism. Political junkies just love Kennedy nostalgia. So profound is the Kennedy cargo cult that Michael Dukakis -- who was as much a reincarnation of JFK as Weird Al Yankovich is of Frank Sinatra -- tapped Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as his 1988 running mate because he believed it would revive the "Boston-Austin" axis of the JFK-LBJ ticket. Recalling the electricity and verve of that Democratic ticket, who among us can deny Dukakis' wisdom?

Such are the dangers of political nostalgia, which often drives candidates to repeat history as farce.

Until fairly recently, Romney was rightly reluctant to give a "JFK speech." "What would I say?" he asked. He seemed to understand that JFK's 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Assn. has become the stuff of legend and any effort to match it would come up short. "I probably could never do something that would compare to what John F. Kennedy did," Romney said in October. "His was a masterpiece in American political history."

Well, now the former Massachusetts governor is going to talk about "faith in America," and in Houston no less. We don't know what he'll say, but it's easy to guess why he's saying it: Mike Huckabee. The Southern Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor is leading in Iowa polls, scuttling Romney's plan to use a victory there as a springboard to the Republican nomination. Huckabee's charm, skill and socially conservative record help explain much of his success. And Romney's Olympian hair, hypnotic teeth, squishy record and yacht-salesman demeanor are all important factors in why he can't seal the deal with some Iowa voters.

But there's another factor: Romney's heresy. I don't mean this in a pejorative sense, though others do. Mormonism is seen as a non-Christian cult by many conservative Christians, and a Romney nomination or presidency, they fear (I don't), would serve to advance the mainstreaming of Mormonism. In fairness, the Christian right is no monolith, and Romney has many religious conservatives in his corner. And if Huckabee weren't in the race, he'd have more.

Still, Romney is marching into a theological head wind the other candidates aren't. It's not his or any other Mormon's policy positions that are at stake. Some of the most effective conservatives in Washington are Mormons. What rankles is the widespread characterization -- mis-characterization in their eyes -- of Mormonism as merely another "denomination" of Christianity. Phrases like "a stronghold of Satan's" (applied to Utah) and "false prophecy" (applied to the "cult" ) get bandied about in some circles. Others are coldly analytical; a Mormon president, they correctly adduce, would only aid the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' remarkable success at proselytizing in the U.S. and around the world.

How can Romney address this concern? It's not like he could -- or should -- say he's no Mormon role model. And talking theology at all is only likely to exacerbate his problem with the voters who care about it, and those are the voters he needs.

Meanwhile, in 1960, Catholics numbered somewhere between a quarter and a third of the electorate. While there were few in the South, they often dominated in the Northeast. Today, Mormons amount to roughly 2%, and most are concentrated in or around Utah. In many primary contests, Kennedy's Catholicism was an asset. In Wisconsin's open primary, GOP Catholics crossed party lines in huge numbers, securing Kennedy's victory over Hubert Humphrey. There aren't enough of them for Romney to get a big boost anywhere from Mormon Democrats for Romney.

Also, in 1960, Kennedy tackled his version of the "religion issue" head-on, debating the role of faith in public life in one primary after another and promising to hold to an extreme standard on separation of church and state. So far, Romney's stance has been much more akin to 1928 Democratic nominee Al Smith, who largely refused to discuss his faith. Smith's loss was a complicated affair, with anti-Catholic bigotry an ample part of the equation. But his defeat also owed to the fact that he was an opponent of Prohibition (God bless him), and this was spun as proof that Smith was doing the bidding of the anti-Prohibition Catholic Church.

There's nothing like that going on today. Indeed, the people Romney needs to win over believe that there should be more, not less, room for religion in public life. He won't gain votes by calling them bigots -- no matter how gently -- either. Meanwhile, the last thing Romney can afford to do is backpedal on his religious faith. That would be a flip-flop too far.

What he needs to do is reject the Kennedy comparison entirely and sell his candidacy on its own merits. Electability is still more important than theology to most Republicans, and that's where he should take his stand. Instead, he's heading to Texas to play a game he can't win.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com
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