Mitt’s “birth certificate” challenges

Romney faces his own set of identity questions

Could Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have been separated at birth?

I ask because they each face serious questions about their legitimate membership in American society – and from some of the same citizens.  Obama has had the “birthers” to contend with; Romney faces skeptics within his own party who question not only his Mormonism but his devotion to the high church of capitalism.

The scripture for reassuring a skeptical public that a candidate really is a true red, white, and blue American is John F. Kennedy’s “Houston Ministers” speech in which JFK reassured Protestants that they could trust a Catholic president to make judgments independent of the Pope. Obama had to give his own Houston Ministers speech defending his relationship to Reverend Jeremiah Wright in 2008. Romney has now had to make two Houston-Ministers-type speeches: in 2007, on his Mormon faith and, in 2011, in defense of the health care bill he signed into law in Massachusetts. 

Romney might seem an unlikely candidate to suffer such disbelieving treatment. He’s a wealthy, smart, successful businessman with a devoted wife and children.  But his speech on faith wasn’t enough to quell all reservations, and he still faces distrust among conservative Christians in the Republican base. 

If Romney’s religion speech failed to convert the crankier sorts in the Christian right, his recent defense of the Massachusetts health care law seems not to have satisfied GOP constituencies from the Wall Street establishment to the Tea Party.  Rush Limbaugh said of the governor’s defense of the law, “The reason why I think he’s vulnerable on it (and why a lot of other people do, too) is it’s a dead ringer for Obamacare and the country wants Obamacare repealed.” The Democrats took little time posting a compendium of Fox News commentators declaring Romney all but dead.

The most brutal takedown was provided by the Wall Street Journal.  In an editorial that appeared the morning of Romney’s health care speech, the Journal declared that: “For a potential President whose core argument is that he knows how to revive free market economic growth, this amounts to a fatal flaw.”

In the Journal’s version of the New Testament, the money changers throw Jesus out of the temple and the party goes on. Thus what might seem to be a speech about a state policy is really a rebuttal against an accusation of doctrinal unorthodoxy. The Free Market is a higher power, and only a successful “Houston Ministers” speech could address the challenge.

It may seem strange that three out of four of the “Houston Ministers” speeches have been delivered since 2007. But it’s even stranger that three of them have been delivered by Massachusetts politicians. Perhaps it is the state that is a little strange. After all, in Romney’s first presidential run he almost always had something disapproving to say about the place, though it is hard to deny membership in a community once you’ve been governor.

I like to think though that Romney is quite fortunate to live in the Commonwealth. As Richard D. Brown and Jack Tager wrote in Massachusetts: a Concise History, the state has often faced societal changes such as industrialism and pluralism before other parts of the nation. We’ve frequently worked through those changes and can serve as a model to others.  That seems to be what has happened as Romneycare became Obamacare. And as peculiar as Catholicism might have seemed in some regions of the country in 1960, Massachusetts had long accepted religious diversity. When the religion issue was raised against Romney back in his 1994 run against Sen. Ted Kennedy, the press shot down that tactic as beyond the pale and it had no discernible impact with voters. 

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
After the Journal’s editorial, Romney wrote a response as a letter to the editor, marked from his home in Belmont. So he retains his Massachusetts identity. But for the Republican primaries he will need to prove he belongs. That will take more than a long form birth certificate.

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.