Dionne Weighs in on Campaigns
Published: Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 20:10
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a faculty member at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and a columnist for The Washington Post. Dionne sat down Oct. 1 with THE HOYA to discuss the political campaigns.
Given the historical significance of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, do you think that his faith has gotten less attention during the general election campaign than you anticipated?
First of all, I think Romney’s Mormonism got less attention in this campaign than it did four years ago. I am persuaded that his Mormonism really hurt him then in the Iowa caucuses and helped Mick Huckabee win. Huckabee might have won anyway — he was a very appealing candidate— but I think a reaction to Romney’s Mormonism from evangelical Christians put him even more behind. This time, Romney has chosen not to talk about it very much, which I think, in some ways, is a loss to him and the country. In fact, I thought the most powerful moments at the Republican Convention were when the people he helped as a Mormon bishop spoke up. They were among the best witnesses we have seen for Mitt Romney. The other factor is that for a majority of evangelical conservatives, their opposition to President Obama trumps whatever qualms they might have about Romney’s Mormonism. Overall, I’m glad Romney’s Mormonism is not an issue. I wrote a column back in 2007 where I said — as a liberal and as a Catholic — I was intensely opposed to anti-Mormon feeling, just like I’m opposed to any other kind of religious prejudice. People can have legitimate arguments with the Mormon Church on issues where they disagree, but I don’t like somebody’s religion being held against them. I hope Romney wins or loses for reasons other than his religion.
Many have attributed Obama’s recent gains in the polls to mistakes from Romney. Do you think the president deserves credit for any specific strategies that have boosted him in the polls?
Someone wrote that Mitt Romney seemed to be following David Axelrod’s strategy. What strikes me is that the Obama campaign, starting in the summer with a lot of help from the Obama super PAC, was trying to get swing voters to see Romney as a really rich guy who was out of touch with the concerns of middle-class voters. The mistakes Romney has made recently played right into the image of him that the Obama campaign was trying to create, and that’s especially true of the “47 percent” remarks. The Democratic Convention also put out a much more consistent message. Bill Clinton’s speech, in particular, had the effect of persuading people that the economy is not what we want, but Obama made it a whole lot better than it was and we’re on the right track. While voters still say that the country on the whole is on the wrong track, the polls show that voters feel better about the economy than they did, and they feel a little more confidence in Obama than in Romney on the economy. That goes right to the heart of the argument Romney hoped to make.
It seems as if Paul Ryan has been given a more diminished role than the Romney campaign hoped for him. Why do you think they gave up on the prospects of Ryan adding to the campaign so quickly?
The Romney campaign was hoping that by putting Ryan on the ticket, they would make conservatives happy, and in they short term, they did. What the Romney campaign was wrong about is they believed that they could neutralize the argument against [Ryan’s proposals for] Medicare — which is similar to what Romney wants to do to Medicare — and they realized, especially looking at polls in Florida, that Ryan’s Medicare proposal is actually quite unpopular with older voters. Republicans need to win older voters by a substantial margin; they are the most Republican group in the electorate. That is the primary reason why the Romney campaign has not unleashed Ryan to talk about his plan. I think a large part of his plan is unpopular, and I think conservatives still don’t want to face that. If Romney loses — and I would underscore “if” because we’ve still got a long way to go, including the debates — there will be a huge debate among Republicans about the future of their party, which I think is really important to all of us, including Democrats and independents.
You were very critical of the Citizens United decision and its potential corruptive effects on elections. Have those fears played out as you expected in the general election?
I always thought that while its impact would be significant in the presidential election, it would not be as significant as it would be in the House and Senate races simply because Obama was going to raise enough money to be competitive, and even if the Republican super PAC outspent his super PAC, Obama was still going to have a lot of money. We still don’t know yet, and we’ll only find out in the final weeks of the campaign if last-minute money from super PACs dropped into a variety of House races and some Senate races actually shifts the direction of the race. That’s where I’m most worried about the impact of Citizens United. I don’t like the idea of a president of any party being so dependent on a very, very small group of rich people to buy a whole lot of ads for him. That should disturb us all, and I hope we start a debate about this.
If the polls continue to look bad for Romney, do you think he is the type of candidate to do something desperate, whether it’s in these debates or with advertising?
I’m not sure that Mitt Romney himself would do something desperate, but who knows what the super PACs would do, since they’re not accountable to anyone and Romney has deniability. Desperate moves also have huge potential to blow back. What I’m really worried about are the voter ID laws and a collection of what I see as voter suppression laws. If these laws — which are clearly targeted at certain groups of voters, most of whom vote Democratic — actually influence the election, we’re going to have a terrible problem of legitimacy after the election. I see these laws as the biggest challenge to voting rights since we passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.