Several weeks ago, David Axelrod, the Obama campaign’s maharishi, called together his Chicago gang to discuss what they should do if their mudslinging campaign against Mitt Romney and Bain Capital didn’t do the trick and Romney began to pull even with—or ahead of—Barack Obama in the polls.
According to my sources inside the campaign, Axelrod & Co. discussed what might be called the nuclear option: unleashing an attack on Romney’s Mormon faith via the mainstream media.
As Axelrod knew, many pundits credit evangelical Christians, who are heavily Republican and comprise some 14 percent of voters, with putting George W. Bush over the top in the election of 2004.Axelrod was also aware that Mormonism is a fraught subject among evangelical Christians, a substantial portion of whom believe that Mormonism is a cult that is separate and apart from Christianity.
Axelrod calculated that if he could turn 5 to 10 percent of the evangelicals against Romney because of his Mormonism, he could deny Romney victory at the polls in 2012.
Of course, Axelrod and his team had already succeeded in pandering to special interest groups, such as Hispanics, gays, and women. They wondered whether they could have equal success playing on the fears of Mormonism among evangelical Christians and convince them to stay at home on Election Day rather than vote for Mitt Romney.
Axelrod recognized that playing the Mormon card contained several obvious dangers. For one thing, the Obama campaign was already embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Catholic Church over a health-insurance mandate for contraception. An attack on Mormonism would open the Obamaites to fresh charges of religious bigotry. For another, an attack on Romney’s religious beliefs might encourage the Republicans to reciprocate by reopening the whole tangled issue of Obama and the Reverend Wright.
During an interview I conducted with the Reverend Wright for my book "The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House," I asked the pastor if he had converted Obama from Islam to Christianity. “That’s hard to say,” Wright replied.
Wright then went on to say: “I think I convinced [Obama] that it was okay for him to make a choice in terms of who he believed Jesus is. And I told him it was really okay and not a putdown of the Muslim part of his family or his Muslim friends…. And even after Barack and Michelle came to the church, their kids weren’t raised in the church like you raise other kids in Sunday school. No. Church was not their thing. It never was their thing… So the church was not an integral part of their spiritual lives after they got married.”
According to my sources, Axelrod at first hesitated to green light an attack on Romney’s Mormonism for fear it might boomerang and expose the campaign as clumsy and further tarnish Obama as a blundering amateur. However, a new set of polls convinced Axelrod that he had no choice but to go for the nuclear option and raise the issue of Romney’s Mormonism.
These recent polls show Romney beginning to close the gap in seven key swing states—Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. What’s more, according to an election model based on state-level economic data from the last eight presidential elections and put together by Colorado political science professors Kenneth Bickers and Michael Berry, “Romney will win the popular vote and take the White House with more than 300 electoral votes.”
In case you haven’t noticed, the media has recently declared open season on Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. Here are some of the most egregious examples:
• GQ, a men’s magazine of style and culture, printed a blistering piece about Romney’s Mormonism in its August issue. In one particularly repellent sentence, the writer noted that Mormon founder Joseph Smith, “despite having some forty wives, still endeavored to f*** everything in sight.”
• MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell went on one of his vein-popping tirades about Mormonism, charging that the religion was “created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it.”
• The New York Times Sunday Review section ran an article titled “Why Race Is Still a Problem for Mormons.” The caption accompanying the article said: “Brigham Young, who established the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City and whose statue stands beside it, relegated blacks to second-class status in the church.”
• ABC “World News Tonight” ran a two-part series on Romney’s Mormonism. This is the same newscast that in 2008 refused to broadcast videotapes obtained by Brian Ross, the network’s chief investigative reporter, showing the Reverend Jeremiah Wright ranting against whites and Jews. Now, with two months remaining in the 2012 campaign, an ABC News reporter hammered home the theme that in the church’s “imposing temples, secret rituals are performed by all-male leaders.”
• NBC, which never felt an obligation to examine Barack Obama’s relationship with the Reverend Wright’s brand of black liberation theology, devoted a full one-hour episode of “Rock Center with Brian Williams” to examining Romney’s Mormonism.
Is this sudden, strange and unaccountable focus on Mitt Romney’s Mormonism by the mainstream media just an odd coincidence? Or is the “fine Italian hand” of David Axelrod behind the media onslaught?
In trying to answer that question, I am reminded of what NBC political analyst Mark Halperin recently said in another context: “The media is very susceptible to doing what the Obama campaign wants.”
Edward Klein is the former editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine. His latest book is "Blood Feud: The Clintons vs. the Obamas" (Regnery 2014). His previous book "The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House" (Regnery 2012) was a bestseller and is no available in paperback.