The Hillary Files on Romney’s Religion

The LA Times’ story this week on Hillary Clinton’s White House Papers revealed the following interesting nugget of information regarding Mitt Romney:

One 1994 memo offers a historical curiosity: it draws Clinton’s attention to a rising politician, Mitt Romney, who is now a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

In the memo, Clinton’s aides discussed a trip to Boston, where the then-first lady was to appear at a fundraising event for Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Kennedy was then running for reelection against Romney.

“Romney, a millionaire business consultant with no political experience, is a Mormon,” the memo reads. “His religion is a delicate issue, which Kennedy has not raised, but other Democrats have.”

(HT: The Virginian Federalist) . Personally, I don’t think there’s a lot that can be made of this regarding Hillary Clinton’s strategy. This memo was written over a decade ago, and in very different circumstances (a first lady’s staff writing about a political neophyte and unsuccessful senatorial candidate). The fact that the two characters in the story are now leading presidential candidates adds drama, but hardly a smoking gun. And besides, Hillary can hardly be condemned because her aides noted, in a plausibly neutral way (and in private) that Romney was vulnerable on his religion.

What it does show, however, is the larger problem on view. That is, since he very first started his political career, Mitt Romney has been walking around with a target on his chest. For any political opposition team evaluating this man, it would have been near malpractice not to note his Mormonism, and fantasize a bit about how that might be exploited. Scrupulous opposition candidates have passed on that chance, and unscrupulous candidates have taken advantage, but everyone understands that it’s there, and is an explosive little topic that might be useful if absolutely necessary.

In case it’s not obvious, this is a problem. The mere fact that a person is a Mormon is simply not a politically relevant fact, at least objectively. However, the fact that the religion remains such a novelty among so many Americans makes it relevant for politicians, who seem ever at the ready to exploit blue-collar prejudices to their advantage. Plain and simple, Americans are still uncomfortable with people of faith, and especially those that belong to a religion with a slightly different flavor than they’re used to. That someone in the Clinton camp recognized that truth in the early 90s is not a scandal. It’s the moment that Clinton, or any other candidate, actually attempts to profit from it that will cause real concern, since such actions will at once condone and perpetuate the prejudice. Hillary need not apologize for this insignificant memo. But she, and all her co-candidates, ought to commit to leave such things in the dustbin of politics past, where they belong.