What happened the last time an incumbent Democrat faced the prospect of losing to Mitt Romney.
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“Of course, it’s about religion,” Martin Nolan, a longtime Boston reporter told the New York Times about the purpose of Kennedy’s attacks. “Mormonism is an exotic concept in Massachusetts. It’s part of his game plan to create doubt about his opponent any way he can.”
Finally, after remaining silent about the attacks on his faith for weeks, Romney summoned the media to his campaign headquarters in late September, with his 87-year-old father at his side.
There was an obvious irony in Kennedy’s attacks, and Romney portrayed them as a betrayal of President Kennedy’s legacy. “In my view,” Romney said, “the victory that John Kennedy won was not for just 40 million Americans who were born Catholic — it was for all Americans of all faiths. And I’m sad to say that Ted Kennedy is trying to take away his brother’s victory.”
Then, as Michael Kranish and Scott Helman recount in their recent book The Real Romney, George Romney, who had been wandering through the press gaggle visibly agitated, suddenly blurted out, “I think it is absolutely wrong to keep hammering on the religious issues. And what Ted is trying to do is bring it into the picture.”
The press conference marked a turning point in campaign. The next day, a Boston Globe editorial stated, “It’s fine to ask Romney what he thinks about welfare and other social issues, but don’t hit him for following the tenets of faith within a religious community.”
The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston also condemned the attacks. An editorial in the diocesan newspaper The Pilot chastised the Catholic Kennedy as well as the Boston Globe: “And why have they [the Globe] raised the issue of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism again and again? Does one have to be a cynic to think that the Globe would like to portray Mitt Romney as an anti-women Mormon and therefore unfit for the Senate?”
Rebuked by his allies, Kennedy performed what NPR described as “an about face” on Romney’s religion, halting the religious attacks and training his fire on, among other things, Romney’s work at Bain Capital. Joe Kennedy called Romney to apologize, then released a letter in which he claimed to “deeply regret” his remarks.
Kennedy’s poll numbers began to recover, and by mid-October the incumbent enjoyed a double-digit lead. On Election Day, Kennedy won comfortably by 17 points.
SO WHAT, IF ANYTHING, does all this portend for 2012? Desperate to rally minority and female voters, the Obama campaign might be tempted to raise the Mormon Church’s past policies. All accounts suggest Obama has ditched the mostly above-the-fray campaign he waged in 2008 and is employing a brass-knuckle approach this time around.
“What Obama and his team have accepted is that, while there’s a lot to be said for changing politics and elevating the discourse, your most important job as president is to defend your priorities,” the New Republic’s Noam Scheiber wrote recently. “And the way you do that is to win.”
To that end, the campaign has hired Stephanie Cutter as deputy campaign manager to oversee its daily combat operation. According to Scheiber, Cutter is legendary among Democrats for her “Dresden-esque” campaign tactics, referring to the Allies’ overwhelming and indiscriminate bombing of Dresden, Germany, at the close of World War II.
As a White House advisor told Scheiber, “It’s always been true that you’re either playing offense or defense, and offense is better than defense.”
There is a case to be made that Romney’s faith is a net benefit to him and his candidacy. But that doesn’t mean Obama won’t lash out if he gets desperate.
In a close race, with a by-any-means-necessary campaign comfortable with gratuitous rhetorical firebombing and incendiary attacks, it may not be a matter of if Obama attacks Romney’s religion, but when.
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