A few weeks ago Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz responded to the idea that in the presidential campaign Democrats will use religion against Mitt Romney:
“That suggestion is utter nonsense. Let’s remember that President Obama has had so many things hurled at him – birth certificate questions, whether he is or is not a Christian,” Wasserman Schultz continued. “For them to suggest that religion will be injected [into the election] by President Obama and the Democratic Party, I mean, I think they need to take a look inward at the accusations that their party and their supporters have hurled before they take that step.”
Well, when it comes to injecting religion into the campaign, there is more than one way to skin a Mormon– I mean, a cat. In today’s digital world it’s pretty easy to do, without dirtying the Obama campaign’s hands at all. Here are some examples.
“Whoops, I Did It Again”
At Governors Journal, Dean Pagani offers an interesting analysis and summation of the Brian Schweitzer story, which John wrote about last week here. Readers will recall that Schweitzer, the Democratic Governor of Montana, said Mitt Romney’s family roots were in “a polygamy commune in Mexico.” Pagani:
Politicians subtlety tossing out ideas with or without making a direct charge is nothing new. It happens every day in big and small campaigns across the country. What is slightly new is how it impacts the flow of information on the Internet. If there wasn’t before; as a result of Schweitzer’s comments there’s now a link you can be led to if you search for the words “Romney and polygamy” together. A link that suggests polygamy is just one generation removed from Romney himself.
It has been reliably reported that one of the strategies of the Obama campaign is to create a narrative that Romney is just plain weird. A charge has been made that his wife has “never worked a day in her life” and now a suggestion has been made that his family lived in a “polygamy commune.”
In each case the response from the Obama campaign has been the same; repeat the charge while renouncing it. In the face of a growing pattern, it’s becoming more difficult to give Democrats the benefit of the doubt when they mis-speak about their probable opponent.
(Emphasis added.) Pagani does seem to be on to something. So far we’ve seen the same pattern at least three times:
- On MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell makes a blistering attack on Romney and his Mormon faith. The digital communications world (blogosphere, Twitterverse, Facebook) explodes over O’Donnell’s remarks; the MSM dutifully reports on the story (except Meet the Press’s David Gregory, who wanted to pretend the story didn’t exist); Debbie Wasserman Schultz tells a national TV audience that such attacks are unacceptable and the Democrats won’t use religion against Romney.
- Hilary Rosen, a Democratic operative with close ties to the White House (visiting there over 30 times during the Obama Administration, including 5 meetings in which the president himself was present), says Ann Romney has “never worked a day in her life.” The same pattern unfolds, except David Axelrod and eventually President Obama himself both come out and says the candidate’s families are out of bounds.
- Brian Schweitzer runs his “polygamy commune” schtick.
Do you see how this works? Let someone else make the outrageous statement, then distance yourself from it. No denunciation, mind you; a mere disavowal will do. Meanwhile, the meme develops. How many people who heard about the above three statements actually took the time to investigate whether O’Donnell’s anti-Mormon screed was accurate (it wasn’t); or that Hilary Rosen’s attack on Mrs. Romney was not a fair representation of Ann’s life or of Mormon family life generally; or that one has to go back to Mitt Romney’s great-great grandfather to find a polygamist?
Meanwhile, some Democrats are worried about their own Anti-Mormon Problem
So far only Peter Beinart has raised that daring (for a left-liberal) idea, but that’s a good start. Beinart, who has shown a willingness to engage with conservatives, thinks that “Democrats Have Bigger Anti-Mormon Problem in Election Than GOP Has.” The whole thing is well worth reading; Key excerpts:
Despite the media’s obsession with the alleged anti-Mormonism of evangelical Christians, the party with the larger anti-Mormon problem is the Democrats. According to Gallup, while only 18 percent of Republicans said they would oppose a Mormon candidate, among Democrats the figure was 27 percent. As if on cue, Montana’s Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, last week volunteered that women would not back Romney because his father was “born on a polygamy commune in Mexico.”
To its credit, the Obama campaign repudiated Schweitzer’s statement. But between now and Election Day, anti-Mormonism is going to be the Democratic Party’s constant temptation for one simple reason: there are votes in it….
One reason Democrats may be more anti-Mormon than Republicans is that Democrats, on average, are more secular. Devout Protestants, Catholics, and Jews may be more tolerant of Mormonism because they understand from firsthand experience the comfort and strength that religious commitment brings. Many secular Democrats, by contrast, may start with the assumption that religious orthodoxy produces irrationality and intolerance…. Democrats may exhibit greater suspicion of Mormonism, in other words, because they exhibit greater suspicion of all organized religion. It’s just that anti-Mormonism is still socially acceptable enough to confess to a pollster.
The second way in which Democrats justify their anti-Mormonism is via the LDS Church’s own flirtation with bigotry…. It wouldn’t be surprising, therefore, if one reason Democrats are more anti-Mormon than Republicans is because African-Americans, gays, and lesbians are more anti-Mormon. But using the church’s historic (and even present-day) intolerance to justify intolerance toward its members is idiotic. LDS is hardly the only faith with a history of antiblack racism, and individual Mormons should be held no more responsible for the LDS Church’s antigay views than individual Catholics should be held responsible for the Vatican’s….
It’s important that Barack Obama wins this election, but for the country’s sake, it’s important that Mormonism not lose.
Joanna Brooks, a left-of-center Mormon writer, disagrees in Why Peter Beinart is Wrong on Democrats and Anti-Mormonism. We’ll leave it to you to decide who’s right. I think Brooks is too willing to give liberals a pass for insisting that Romney’s religion be explored for hints as to how his church’s teachings might influence his policy positions. I’ll go along with that analysis as soon as someone can show me any historical precedent for a U.S. presidential candidate being required to address the connection between his religious faith and his policy positions.
The Dog-Whistle Problem
Jonah Goldberg notes yet another way in which the drip-drip-drip of the “Mormon meme” development can be accomplished. On Special Report last night (video and story here), a “Democrat strategist” named Ryan Clayton said:
I don’t think people should be attacking Mitt Romney for his faith, just like they shouldn’t be attacking President Obama for his Christianity. You know, faith and politics, if you mix it together, becomes kind of a tinder box and can explode in your face.
I’m not saying that was Clayton’s intent [to comment on whether or not Mormonism is Christian] or that he doesn’t have the right to say it if it was, but you can see in the outlines of this formulation a way for Democrats to dogwhistle Romney’s Mormonism relentlessly. “I for one will not attack anyone’s religion, be they devout Christian or whatever the Hell Mitt Romney is.” I expect to hear more of it, a lot more of it.
So do we. Everyone needs to watch this. We must avoid crying “bigotry” where there is none, but people of good will need to speak up when the anti-Mormon game is being played, however subtly. We want Mitt Romney to win the presidency, but to paraphrase Beinart, when it comes to the spirit of Article VI of the Constitution, it’s even more important that the country not lose.