One of Campaign 2008’s hottest topics has been the question of whether — and, if so, when — Mitt Romney needs to give the “Mormon speech.” Polls show a significant number of Americans won’t vote for a Mormon, which could seriously jeopardize his ability to win the Republican nomination and the presidency. Conventional thinking, then, says that Romney needs to hit the religious-prejudice issue head-on, much like John F. Kennedy did in 1960.
But the real question is why another candidate hasn’t stepped forward to defend Romney against the religious bigotry he’s facing – not with an offhand comment or two – but with a major Mormon speech of his own. True, doing so might seem like a risky political maneuver, since it would aid a fellow contender. But it’s the right thing to do — and could even help the campaign of the candidate who rises to Romney’s defense.
It’s understandable why Romney has hesitated to give the speech up to this point. It’s odious that in 21st-century America a candidate has to defend his religion. And Romney’s faced with the difficult task of writing and delivering such a speech without sounding self-pitying. Then there’s the question of timing: should he give the speech now or wait for later in the campaign, when more voters will be paying attention? (For the record, JFK gave his Houston Ministers speech in September of the election year, after he had been nominated.) Of course, Romney will inevitably be compared with Kennedy, and that’s a comparison that’s hard to measure up to.
But none of the other candidates have these excuses — which makes one wonder exactly what kind of people we have seeking the nation’s highest office this year. As potential leaders of the nation, don’t they think religious prejudice is something they ought to confront, especially since the issues of religion and politics are currently so intertwined?
A winning response
To be fair, Hillary Clinton isn’t the right one to rise to Romney’s defense, because it would look as if the Democratic front-runner was attempting to handpick her opponent. And while Fred Thompson could give such a speech, we all know that it would take him two months to decide to give it, another three months to write it, and four months to schedule it. So he’s out, too.
But there are others. Take John McCain. If he’s trying to re-establish his credentials as an independent above the trappings of politics, nothing would help him more than taking the time to defend one of his toughest opponents against religious bigotry. Ditto for Mike Huckabee, who could show how he’s different while subtly criticizing the rest of the field for failing to do the same.
Rudy could do it, too, and would benefit from lecturing his party about judging candidates on the basis of who they are or where they’re from, given that he’s encountered prejudice as a New York Italian Catholic.