Daniel Allott reminds us of when the Kennedy clan used Romney’s faith against him in Romney’s 1994 challenge against Ted Kennedy. I sort of remember it. Part of the story involves local context. John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech was a local legend as an advance for American religious pluralism. So now John Kennedy’s kid brother and his allies are implying that Romney belongs to a weird racist cult and that people should vote for him. No more of that hippie 60s stuff about “I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”
The local media reaction was instructive. The dominant local paper (the Boston Globe) and the local television stations got around to criticizing Kennedy for the game he was playing and the Kennedy clan cut it out, but it wasn’t like a scandal or anything. There wasn’t a persistent story about the Kennedys perpetuating and seeking to profit from bigotry and the non-right-leaning parts of the local media didn’t try to frame the Senate race as a referendum on religious tolerance. It wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t even as persistent a story as the one about the alleged Romney high school bullying.
The Kennedy Mormon attacks aren’t why Romney lost in 1994. The Kennedy attacks on Bain, Romney’s own failure to differentiate himself from Kennedy on high salience issues and Kennedy’s debate victories were more important factors. But that doesn’t mean Romney didn’t learn something from the Mormon attacks. The refs (the media) are -depending on the individual – subconsciously biased or knowingly crooked. You can’t play by their rules because they don’t play by their rules. If you let them control the debate, your misdemeanors become capital offenses and the other side’s capital offenses quickly become sealed juvenile records.
So Romney isn’t going to apologize for the idiotic things some Romney supporters say about Obama. Let Obama and Obama’s media allies whine about the rantings of celebrities. Romney is going to talk about what he wants to talk about. The norms of the liberal-leaning but not explicitly left-partisan media (think NBC rather than MSNBC) are such that they have to broadcast some of what Romney says. And Romney is going to spend that time talking about Solyndra and the problems of the long-term unemployed rather than why he is sorry that Donald Trump is a jerk.
I think that Romney learned something else from that Senate race. Biography isn’t enough. The Romney of 1994 ran a personality-based campaign against Kennedy. Romney was the (vaguely) more moderate, more sober (in every sense), more family-centered, businessman, outsider alternative to Kennedy. I can’t remember a major issue difference between the two candidates. These must have been some and it was a long time ago, but all I actually remember are some Romney clichés about free markets and business experience and such. Then look at the Scott Brown campaign of 2010. Brown ran on his hardworking, everyday guy persona, but he also ran on the two high salience issues of opposing Obamacare and opposing civilian trials for terrorists. Romney is doing the same thing now. He is running as the businessman economic Mr. Fixit, but he is also relentlessly pounding economic conditions, Solyndra, etc. None of this means that a better Romney campaign would have led to a Romney win in 1994. Ted Kennedy’s 1994 win was an overdetermined event. But the lessons of that failed campaign might help Romney win this year.