The general-election campaign has begun, and some Republicans and members of the LDS church are saying that an early line being advanced by the Obama camp — that Mitt Romney is overly secretive about his campaign and personal finances and his gubernatorial years, among other things — is actually a coded assault on Romney’s Mormon faith. (Politico’s Mike Allen and I had an exchange about this on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Monday morning.)
This is tricky territory. We of course have to be vigilant about coded attacks on religious or racial grounds. (The pros call this kind of rhetoric “dog whistling,” a reference to making arguments that can be heard in one way by parts of the electorate while the rest of the voters go on largely oblivious to an attack’s particular meaning.) At the same time, no candidate should be able to throw a religious shroud over questions relevant to one’s experience and record.
The recent controversy started when David Axelrod, the President’s campaign chief, told Politico that the Obama campaign will make a major umbrella issue of what he calls “Romney’s penchant for secrecy”: “George Bush felt it was appropriate to release the names of his bundlers. John McCain did. But not Mitt Romney. Why did George Bush and John McCain release multiple years of tax returns, but not Mitt Romney? … There are central issues, but this is a disturbing one and it goes to that question of, like, ‘Who is this guy? What does he stand for? What does he believe? What do we know about him?’”
On reflection, it seems a stretch to say that the President’s campaign is engaging in religious bigotry by talking about Romney’s tax returns, bundler records and purged e-mails. For one thing, they don’t need to; the truth is potentially bad enough for Romney, who won’t release years of tax returns and took hard drives from his gubernatorial offices in Massachusetts when he left. (According to the Associated Press, “Late last year, Romney acknowledged that near the end of his governor’s term in 2007 he approved a sweeping purge of executive e-mails from the state government’s computer servers, and the removal of top aides’ hard drives and computers. Romney justified the purge as legal, prompted by privacy worries.”)
Add in Romney’s elastic policy views of recent years — an issue fully explored in the primaries and sure to be with us until November — and the Axelrod “Who is this guy?” question appears justified without any reference to, or implication about, religion.
One other point on this: it’s possible that the 2012 general-election race will be the least overtly religious one since 1972, the last campaign before Roe v. Wade and the rise of Jimmy Carter brought evangelicalism into the political mainstream. That’s because faith remains a complicated issue for Obama, who is still (wrongly) thought to be a Muslim in some quarters and for whom the subject remains linked in the public mind to the extreme sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s old pastor in Chicago. It’s possible that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans will have much to gain from raising religion in any way.
And that’s likely to be good news, for it gives us time and space to focus more on jobs than on Jesus — not a bad thing at all for a presidential campaign.
(MORE: Mitt Romney: So Now You Like Me?)