Mitt Romney planned to run for president as a successful businessman who would bring some hard-headed business common sense and smarts to the job of running the badly dysfunctional federal government.
Like Sen. John Kerry in 2004, Romney must now be puzzled about how what he thought was his strongest asset (in Kerry's case, his honorable service in the Vietnam War; in Romney's, his successful career at Bain Capital) could have molted into a liability. The answer is in part skilled demagoguery from the other side (yes, I mean you, Mr. President) and in part deserved punishment for overplaying your hand (military experience in Kerry's case, transferable business skills in Romney's).
If he can't run exclusively as a business genius, Romney will have another problem that otherwise might have gone away: People just don't like him. If he was going to restore the economy and America's place in the world, they wouldn't care. If he can't guarantee delivery, his apparent inability to connect with people on an emotional level becomes much more important.
People close to Romney swear that he's both a good person and a great guy, and that ought to be easy enough to believe. So what's his problem? Is he too handsome? Does he look too much like a president ever to be elected president? Has he spent too many years in the high-finance cocoon to know how to talk with people outside it? I don't know. Whatever the cause, I have the solution. Romney had it in his hands, and threw it away.
In 2007, trying to clear away the underbrush for his 2008 presidential bid, Romney gave a closely watched speech he called "Faith in America," about being a Mormon and running for president. He consciously followed the lead of John F. Kennedy in his famous 1960 speech to the ministers of Houston about being a Catholic aspiring to the highest office.
Like Kennedy, Romney argued that politics and religion were separate spheres. He pledged to be president of all the people, not just his co-religionists. He said, with Kennedy, that if an irreconcilable conflict arose between his core religious beliefs and his obligations as president, he would resign before betraying either. And he said that for a presidential candidate to go into any details about his faith — to "describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines" to the press and public — would violate the spirit of the constitutional separation of church and state. In other words: My Mormonism is private, and has no relevance to the presidential campaign or the presidency.
That may have been good enough for 1960, but not for 2012, when the deepest reaches of any candidate's psyche are considered fair game for commentary and analysis. Mormons believe some pretty wacky things (as do other Christians, Jews and Muslims — but they have different odd beliefs, ones that have been preapproved). Furthermore, Romney is a much more devout Mormon than Kennedy was a Catholic.
The important point is that Romney may be a fool even to want to bottle up his faith and pack it away for the duration, because it could be the best thing about him. It certainly humanizes him — which he needs. This occurred to me while reading Walter Kirn's wonderful essay in the current New Republic about growing up Mormon.
Even though he has long since left the church, and never came close to observing all its precepts, Kirn admires Mormonism as "our country's longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America, with increasingly dire social consequences." Kirn offers several dramatic examples of extraordinary kindnesses the Mormon church and its members have done, in the spirit of community, for his own family and himself.
The article certainly opened my eyes, and Romney is not just a member but a leader of this organization. Romney shouldn't be pushing his Mormonism into a corner and hoping people will forget about it. He should be making it a central part of his campaign. It's far and away the best thing I know about him.
At the moment, all that most people know about Romney the man is that once in high school he led a gang that bullied a gay student, and that his wife has multiple sclerosis. And they're turned off by his apparent lack of any inner life. But maybe he does have an inner life after all. Why in the world would he try to hide it?
Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist.
© 2012 Bloomberg News