Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski has unearthed a fascinating old C-SPAN clip from 1994, after Ted Kennedy defeated Mitt Romney in that year’s Massachusetts Senate race. The clip shows Stu Stevens, a GOP media strategist who is currently Romney’s chief strategist, discussing the Kennedy campaign’s conduct during the election. Kennedy elections are notoriously no-holds-barred affairs, and Stevens credited the Kennedy win in part to the Democrat’s repeated use of “the Mormon card”:
The Kennedy campaign very insidiously played the Mormon card in Massachusetts, by simply saying over and over again they weren’t going to talk about the fact that Romney was a Mormon. And this sort of worked. And the Romney campaign should’ve reacted more quickly to it. I think that they felt in Massachusetts it wouldn’t work because Massachusetts has a reputation of being a very tolerant state.
Romney’s rookie mistake, assuming the famous “liberal tolerance” was not the mirage it has always been, may not be a mistake the campaign will make again. That is all the more likely as Stevens is now a prominent campaign adviser. And it’s an important lesson to learn, because as Alana pointed out yesterday, Kaczynski’s colleague McKay Coppins is only the latest to produce a study showing that liberal anti-Mormon bigotry continues to rise.
And after Barack Obama’s strikingly negative campaign in 2008, and the campaign’s record of playing the Mormon card already, it’s clear the Obama campaign will try to out-Kennedy Kennedy (surely a dubious honor). As Alana also noted, the media–especially the New York Times–have relentlessly pushed the anti-Mormon nonsense in just about every conceivable way. And David Axelrod has repeatedly signaled that this will be one element in the president’s reelection strategy.
The question, then, is what Stevens plans to do to counter it. The rising rates of liberal anti-Mormon bigotry combined with the institutional support for that bigotry offered by the media limits the effectiveness of using Kennedy’s campaign as a model. And it also means talking about his religion may work against Romney.
There is also another challenge to countering such bias. In 2008, the Obama campaign believed that part of what sunk John Kerry’s campaign in 2004 was the candidate’s slow response to criticism. (In reality, what sunk John Kerry was being John Kerry.) So the Obama campaign resolved to preemptively accuse Republicans of racism, on the record and often. And when President George W. Bush gave a moving speech in 2008 at the Israeli Knesset at which he denounced appeasers, the combination of Obama’s acute narcissism and overdeveloped sense of self-pity caused the campaign to have one of its lowest moments, announcing that when Bush mentioned appeasers he must have been talking about Obama, and how dare he.
Stevens would do well to learn his own lesson from that: It is off-putting to always be in complaint mode, and voters don’t really like being told they are bigots. So his desire to be proactive on the issue of Romney’s religion carries its own inherent risks. It’s not clear exactly what the right answer is, but we now know Stevens has been mulling over this very question for quite some time.