Pretty much every election year since I can remember, a complaint has arisen that goes like this: "Why are we stuck with these awful choices? In this vast country of highly successful individuals, why don't any of the best people run for president?" Some years evoked more howls than others, and admittedly, 1976 really did present two underperformers, as did 1996. So let's pause to notice the fact that this year we have some exemplary choices.
Fred Thompson is an excellent man who is running a refreshingly substantive campaign. John McCain has demonstrated not just personal courage (which is admirable enough) but the courage of his convictions. And Rudy Giuliani achieved a seemingly impossible task in transforming America's largest city.
But no one running is more impressive than Mitt Romney. It was his speech on religion in American life that caused me to take another look at him. Until then, I confess that I saw him as a sort of robo-candidate: smooth, articulate, but perhaps a little opportunistic and possibly even insincere. The religion speech cast a new light on him.
The question as to whether someone's religious convictions are a fit subject for public scrutiny is not as simple as it sounds. It's too pat to say, "There should be no religious test for public office and there's the end of it." If a candidate were, say, a fundamentalist Mormon like Warren Jeffs, or a Scientologist, that would be an obstacle. But the mainstream Mormon Church has enough of a track record in producing excellent Americans that the particularities of its doctrine are by now a matter of purely scholarly interest. No one thought to raise objections to Mormonism when Mo Udall ran for president, nor even when Mitt's father, George, made a bid. The Senate majority leader is a Mormon and this fact causes not a flicker of interest on the part of his colleagues. Besides, Mitt Romney served as governor of Massachusetts. If anyone felt Joseph Smith's brooding presence during that time, they haven't mentioned it.
What Romney's religion speech demonstrated was not so much his devotion to his own faith (though he declined to run away from it) as his understanding and embrace of America's civic religion. In his telling, that civic religion amounts to a commitment to religious liberty as well as to broadly shared religious values. "It is important to recognize," he said, "that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter -- on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people." Romney went on to paint America as the golden mean between the empty cathedrals of Europe and the violent jihadists of the Islamic world. It was a masterful performance.
But then Romney has been masterful in everything he has attempted. It is not insignificant that this cum laude JD/MBA graduate of Harvard guided Bain Capital to become a hugely successful private equity investment firm and rescued Bain & Company from financial collapse. Romney was brought in to save the 2002 Winter Olympics when the games were mired in scandal and $379 million in debt. Romney was able to turn the situation around completely so that the games actually turned a $100 million profit instead. (He also gave back his salary.) That's not slick, that's substance.
When Mitt Romney took office as governor of Massachusetts, the state had a $1.2 billion deficit. Four years later it was in surplus. He boasts that fourth and eighth graders in Massachusetts achieved the highest scores in the nation in reading and math, though they were doing so before he became governor as well. But his program of assessment, merit pay for good teachers, English immersion and a focus on math and science may have helped keep them at the top.
It is difficult to find any significant weakness in Romney. He is refreshingly articulate, exceedingly well prepared and self-disciplined, clearly an excellent manager with both private and government experience, happily married with a large, supportive family, and well within the mainstream of conservatism on every major issue. His nomination would not divide the base.
He is just the sort of candidate people complain that they never get.