When Mitt Romney ran for the Republican nomination in 2008, many voters got their first look at the former governor through the eyes of radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, an early supporter, who wrote a book entitled A Mormon in the White House? 10 Things Every American Should Know about Mitt Romney. As Romney enters the 2012 race officially today, Hewitt chats with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez — another early 2008 supporter of the governor’s — about the prospects and challenges this time around.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Mitt Romney announces his candidacy today at Bittersweet Farm in Stratham, New Hampshire. Is it bittersweet for you?
HUGH HEWITT: Not at all. I am glad he is running again, and glad that the field is strong and may get stronger still. The greater the obstacles the nominee has to get over, the stronger he or she will be in the fall of 2012.
LOPEZ: The likes of, say, you and me — were we a little too Mitt last time around?
HEWITT: I don’t think pundits should sit on the bench when they have made up their mind. I didn’t think Sen. John McCain would make a good nominee — “great American, lousy senator, terrible Republican” is how I put it then — and so I backed the candidate I thought could win. I’ll do the same this year, and not later than the time I have to vote in the California primary. I remain very impressed with Romney’s capacity for decision-making and his vision of the country, and I am also very impressed with Gov. Tim Pawlenty for the same reasons. Either of these men can beat President Obama in the fall and both would govern from the center of the conservative coalition.
LOPEZ: Is Romney the best man in the field?
HEWITT: There are lots of good men (and soon to be at least one woman) in the field. At this point it seems clear to me that Governor Romney is the most electable, though Governor Pawlenty is very close on that scale.
LOPEZ: Since writing A Mormon in the White House? is there anything you’d take back, anything you’d say or cover differently?
HEWITT: I haven’t reread it, but I don’t think so. I may have underestimated the amount of anti-Mormon bigotry that erupted on the left, but other than that the book stands up very well, especially in its discussion of our Article VI legacy.
LOPEZ: Can you believe the GOP field has gone from one to maybe two Mormons?
HEWITT: The GOP has a deep bench among evangelicals, Mormons, Catholics, and Jews, and I am not surprised by any particular mix of candidates. I don’t think there is much of a bigotry issue in the GOP, though there is a noisy fringe that still exists but is largely understood by everyone to be a fringe. If and when Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan runs for president, there will be a fringe of anti-Catholics as well, but we won’t be paying any attention to them.
LOPEZ: You say you underestimated the anti-Mormon bigotry last time around. Is that a real problem for Romney? For Huntsman?
LOPEZ: How important is overcoming that obstacle for religion and religious freedom in America?
HEWITT: Especially as new regimes emerge in parts of the world where religious intolerance is the rule and not the exception, America has to live out its Article VI commitment, demonstrating that religious pluralism not only works but also provides the context in which genuine faith can flourish and can defend its truth-claims best and most persuasively.
LOPEZ: What was Mitt Romney’s biggest mistake last time around?
HEWITT: I don’t think anyone saw the potential for the coordinated political crossfire between Team Huckabee and Team McCain. It was unique in modern campaigns, and it worked for both McCain and Huckabee, with the latter winning Iowa and the former New Hampshire and the nomination.
LOPEZ: Do you truly believe Romney is a social conservative?
LOPEZ: Does he have an authentic bone in his body?
HEWITT: Of course he does, as everyone who has worked with him and most of us who have interviewed him extensively know. The canard about authenticity is a convenient political rock-top throw, but it could just as easily have been launched against Reagan as Romney because anyone in public life for two decades or more will shift some positions as facts and circumstances change.
LOPEZ: Can Romney overcome what is conventionally, universally considered his health-care problem?
HEWITT: Yes. I gave a speech on this to the Federalist Society earlier this year, emphasizing the core values of federalism and state sovereignty, and I expect more and more conservatives as they focus on the race will discount Team Obama’s attempt to confuse the Massachusetts plan and Obamacare.
LOPEZ: Is it unfair to consider it the precursor to Obamacare?
HEWITT: Yes, but that is a powerful narrative for Team Obama to spin and their friends in the MSM have picked it up. Among the many huge differences: The Massachusetts plan was constitutional and Obamacare isn’t. The Massachusetts plan was a negotiated compromise between two branches and two parties while Obamacare was a one-party jam down. Obamacare raised taxes and cut benefits massively and Massachusetts care did neither. The list goes on and on.
LOPEZ: Are you surprised the Obama administration would characterize him as an inspiration for its own national plan?
HEWITT: No, it is a great though thinly disguised attempt to shift blame for the disaster that is Obamacare.
LOPEZ: Why did the Heritage Foundation and Governor Romney consider an individual mandate conservative or otherwise acceptable?
HEWITT: Because “mandates” at the state level have never been unacceptable and still aren’t unacceptable except to a handful of libertarian purists. We accept the mandate that children must be educated, if not in public schools then in private schools or at home. We accept vaccine mandates. We accept car-insurance mandates. We accept smog-emission mandates. States have the “police power” that the Constitution withheld from the federal government.
LOPEZ: What are your general thoughts about the race this time? Have an underdog you’re cheerleading? Bold predictions? High hopes?
HEWITT: The field is wide, wide open, though as I have said often on the air, Pawlenty and Romney are the strongest candidates in the field. All of the candidates deserve a fair hearing, though I wouldn’t hold the debate process hostage to anyone who simply declares they want to run for president. I don’t think Ron Paul should be on any debate stage, not because he isn’t interesting, for instance, but because everyone knows — every single pundit and party official knows — he will never ever be the GOP nominee, so the GOP shouldn’t be wasting precious minutes of air time letting him hold forth on his well-known views, which don’t have a following above 5 percent in the country.
LOPEZ: Should Paul Ryan get in?
HEWITT: I think everyone who really wants to be president in 2012 should declare, but those who really don’t want that job in that year should stay out. The stakes are that high. The country cannot afford a second term of Barack Obama, and a non-serious candidacy is irresponsible.
LOPEZ: What’s the best and worst thing about primaries?
HEWITT: The best thing is that people and not pundits get to add inputs. The worst is that Ohio doesn’t go first. The candidate who can win Ohio will win the presidency.
LOPEZ: What do you make of the press following Sarah Palin this week as she tours Gettysburg and eats pizza with the Donald?
HEWITT: I love the way Governor Palin lives inside the head of the MSM 24/7. Long may she buzz in the vacant space between their collective ears.
LOPEZ: What was the Donald-presidency stuff all about? Could he pop up again?
HEWITT: Selling. He is a genius at selling. If he needs to sell something else, he will be back.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.