There’s a Mormon running for the White House and radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt has written a book on him, and the prospect of A Mormon in the White House. Hewitt took questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez Tuesday night about Mitt Romney and his prospects.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Three percent, in the latest Gallup poll, Hugh? As a presidential candidate, is he worth a book on?
Hugh Hewitt: I think the New Hampshire number is much more important (Romney is a very close third), as is the Iowa organization (Romney way out in front), and of course the money primary. I know that the cable nets need to have a new storyline every night, but we all realize that the race begins in Iowa, and Romney is planning the classic trampoline campaign, and the calendar sets up nicely for him.
And, yes, he’s a compelling figure and well worth a book, as is the central question I tackle: What is and should be the role of a candidate’s faith in a presidential campaign? I interviewed scores of folks on the subject of whether Romney’s LDS faith should be an issue in the campaign, from Chuck Colson and Archbishop Charles Chaput to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Christopher Hitchens, Jon Meacham, and Mike McCurry. The question elicits very different answers from the spectrum of people I interviewed, and many of those responses were quite shocking.
Lopez: You say you’re not endorsing him but that if the California primary were held today you’d vote for him. How is that not effectively endorsing?
Hewitt: Because things change. As I note in the introduction, candidates cry in the back of trucks, get caught in scandal, say really ridiculous things. The long campaign is a crucible, and a good one, I think, for evaluating. I think I am a little like a Vegas odds maker, assessing the field far out, but always open to new data. Right now I think Romney is the best candidate to be the best commander-in-chief, with Rudy G. a very close second. I am very much looking forward to their conversations among themselves and the other candidates.
Lopez: I’m a huge fan, as you know, but I’m still waiting for Governor Romney to make the case that he’s the guy I want to take over as commander-in-chief in January 2009. You’re sold?
Hewitt: I have purchased an option to buy, I guess. His capacity to lead in these very difficult times is I think unquestioned, and his ability to absorb information, assess options, and make the right –though difficult– choice is to me certain, and his ability to think through these very complicated problems is very unique. Time and again I would pose a very tough question to Romney and he’d answer in a way that demonstrated to me the sort of smarts plus instinct that we will need in the White House.
I began the book as a pessimist about the country’s ability to survive this war. Romney made me an optimist, provided we elect the right leaders in the House, Senate, and presidency.
Lopez: Why do you buy the governor is pro-life? Does it matter if he believes it?
Hewitt: I do believe it, very strongly, and the chapter on the subject details my reasons including my conversations with Romney as well as my conversations with Peter Flaherty, his long-time legal adviser and a very, very strong pro-lifer, and a man of unquestioned integrity. Peter would not be with Romney — nor would pro-life stalwart Jim Bopp and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint — if the governor wasn’t truly committed to the cause of allowing states to protect the unborn. Americans have seen the YouTube video and the 2002 debate — they know Romney changed his mind since he ran against Ted Kennedy. As Archbishop Chaput said to me, we need many more Americans to do the same. Any pro-lifer who reads this book will be satisfied that Mitt Romney will nominate Scalias, not Souters.
Lopez: Is there anything you don’t like about Romney?
Hewitt: As I note in the book, Romney is perhaps unaware of the hit that is coming from his Bain Capital days, and I also disagree on the non-release of tax returns, or at least the promise that, if nominated, he will release his 2008 returns. I also see a political weakness in his genuine lack of guile when it comes to answering questions. He has picked up Senator McCain’s mantle from 2000 in this regard. Very smart people always seem to believe that the best logic wins. In politics, it often doesn’t.
But generally, I am hard to impress, and I have worked for and with some very, very smart people since getting into politics in 1974. Mitt Romney is the equal of any of them in talent.
Lopez: So, Romney’s Mormon I hear. How is it bigotry to be concerned about what Mormons believe and how it might affect how they lead?
Hewitt: I detail in the book the American tradition, one confirmed by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham in interviews: Candidates get to set the rules, and we don’t demand a theological accounting from them as has already been demanded by various writers of Romney. We also do not question specific religious practices. I would have found it off-limits to ask John Kerry, for example — or Rudy Giuliani — when they last went to confession, or to defend the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of papal infallibility or belief in Lourdes or Fatima.
I also find it very offensive to see an increased participation by Mormon Americans in politics as a response to a co-religionist’s entry into the presidential field as anything untoward or ominous. I expect more African Americans in the campaign if Senator Obama is a nominee, and more Italian Americans excited if Mayor Giuliani is the nominee, just as increased Jewish participation followed Joe Lieberman’s nomination and Catholics got excited about Kennedy. When — as has happened already — people murmur about the amount of money Romney raises in Utah, or Mormons volunteering for the campaign, I find it to be a simple expression of bigotry that amounts to a declaration of second-class citizenship for Mormon Americans. There is no credible argument to be made that Salt Lake City would have any role in a Romney administration, and indulging attacks on the faith as a way of attacking Romney are repellant deviations from the American tradition of evaluating candidates without regard to their theology. We judge on the basis of ideology, character, competencies, and positions-taken-on-issues, not faith beliefs.
Lopez: A lot of non-bigoted smart people think the Mormon thing’s a killer for Romney. You’re just not buying that?
Hewitt: No, though it is a real handicap. But I’d rather be a Mormon in this race than have sponsored the Gang of 14 or been indifferent on the issue of judicial imposition of same-sex marriage.
Lopez: There seems to be a lot of hostility toward Romney on the Right. Has anyone ever united the Boston Globe editorial page and U.N.-bashing right-wingers more?
Hewitt: I don’t see that hostility, though I do see a lot of tentativeness: “Is Romney the real deal?” is the question out there. We know –and admire– Mayor Giuliani, but wish he was more conservative. We know –and admire– Senator McCain, but many of us can’t get past the record on “campaign-finance reform,” the Gang of 14, and McCain-Kennedy. Many of us don’t yet know Mitt Romney, and want to be persuaded in a full and frank conversation about all the key issues, beginning of course with the war. That’s where I hope my book comes in. The most interesting, and intense, parts of my interviews with Romney were about the war, and about the aftermath of another catastrophic attack on the U.S. I came away knowing that this was a subject he is investing a lot of time in preparing for because he knows that, if he is president, he will wake up every day to a world at war and a war which we might lose. He’s a responsible, sober, serious candidate in this regard. Conservatives will appreciate that.
They will also come to appreciate that, if nominated, Romney would enter any debate with Hillary the favorite (as would Rudy, I think, though not Senator McCain), the first time a Republican nominee walked on to the stage of a debate the clear favorite since the first Reagan debate in 1984. The ability to communicate with the country and the world is a key advantage this cycle, and the GOP is lucky to have at least two and perhaps more potential nominees with that skills set.
Lopez: Do you have a sense most people even know who Mitt Romney is?
Hewitt: No, they don’t. This is just beginning and the effort by his opponents — at the DNC and in the Massachusetts media primarily– to define him as “not a real conservative” has been intense. The good news for Romney is that GOP primary voters don’t take their cues from the Boston Globe and the networks.
Lopez: There’s a lot of enthusiasm for Fred Thompson, it seems. You getting caught up in the wave? Does it reflect badly on Romney?
Hewitt: Senator Thompson is a great American — I still tell people about hearing his narration of the President Bush intro video at the 2004 convention and thinking “Now there’s a voice of God.” A good conservative with a great political skills set. He’d be formidable, and if he gets in, here’s going to be a great race for conservative pundits to ponder.
But it is late. Running for president is like trying to win the Super Bowl. You cannot do it with one player. (Though the Browns may try with Brady Quinn.) If Senator Thompson is serious, he needs to get in and get engaged now, and not just with a talk-radio interview here and a cable appearance there. These are far too serious times to ask to be nominated in a lightning campaign.
Lopez: Doesn’t McCain tempt you — or make you feel a little more comfortable with a President McCain prospect — when he’s saying all the right things on Iraq, as has been his focus this week?
Hewitt: I will gladly and enthusiastically support Senator McCain if he is the nominee. But I don’t think he will be the nominee. I don’t think his campaign will make it to Iowa in fact. The Gang of 14, The Gang of 14, The Gang of 14. As you may, perhaps, recall, I defended President Bush on the Harriet Miers’s nomination to the end because of my belief in the importance of the Constitution’s design: The president nominates and the whole Senate votes. Senator McCain’s decision to undercut the Constitutional Option makes him my least favorite Republican, though, as I say in every interview, he is a great, great American and rock solid on the war. Against Hillary or Obama, I’d be up all night figuring how to help him win.
Lopez: You endorsed Arnold Schwarzeneggar for governor. Isn’t Rudy G a lot like Arnold?
Hewitt: Absolutely not. Look, Arnold is a fun guy and he’s better than Gray Davis by, what, 10,000 percent? (Social conservatives: Without Arnold, there would be same sex marriage in California adopted by a legislature and signed by a governor, not dictated by a court. And Tom McClintock couldn’t have won.) Arnold, as I say in the book, is “The. Most. Fun. Governor. Ever.”
But I can’t imagine an unserious man as president in a war. Arnold is simply not serious about government. He’s having a blast, and we Golden Staters tend to like this and he’s probably pretty good in an earthquake as well, though not in a war.
Rudy is as serious about the war as they come. He hates the jihadists. Hates them. Wants them dead. Demands victory. Knows Iran’s game. Key thing to remember: Rudy took out the mob. That takes an enormous amount of guts. (Just had a 78-year-old cabbie regale me with stories about Rudy and the Fishmarket.) Rudy doesn’t play nice. Rudy plays to win. As J-Pod notes, he’s a liberal-slayer too boot. He’d be a great candidate, and a great president.
But Rudy doesn’t care about the Marriage Amendment, and Mitt Romney does. Rudy doesn’t think there’s a problem with funding embryonic stem cell research, and Romney does. Romney’s a federalist, and I’m not sold that Rudy is. Rudy is more likely to get Soutered than Romney. That’s why, on March 28, 2007, I prefer Romney. That could change, but not in the next three months.
Lopez: What’s the most frequent reaction you get to your book?
Hewitt: “Is Romney really that smart?” (Answer: Yes.)
Lopez: You write a book a year, don’t you? What’s the next one?
Hewitt: Heh. My novel isn’t selling, so I think it has to be on the great chasm that has opened up. There really are “Two Americas.” Publishers can send their offers to firstname.lastname@example.org.