Mitt Romney's Test of Moral Fiber

I was surprised when Mitt Romney's son, Matt, resuscitated the "birther" issue in New Hampshire on December 29. Speaking at a campaign event, the young Romney deflected a question about his father's refusal to release his income tax return by citing a proposal that President Barack Obama should first release his own birth certificate. Mr. Romney, who has since retracted his statement, apparently did not realize that, at White House urging, the state of Hawaii released the president's long form birth certificate on April 25, 2011.

The White House deemed that action necessary to quiet a noisy debate that was distracting the country and damaging the national interest. The basis of the tempest was the Constitution's Article II Section 1, which seems to prohibit anyone except "naturalized American citizens" born in the USA from serving as president. A small group of conspiracy crackpots, theorizing that the president was lying about having been born in Hawaii, found a bullhorn for their quackery on Fox News and hate radio. Like milk on a hot stove, the bizarre obsession of a lunatic fringe suddenly grew to envelop even the rational remnants of the Republican Party, drowning sane discourse on vital issues of public import. It was apparent from the outset that the topic's steroidal appeal was its dog whistle usefulness in highlighting the "otherness" of America's first African American president; there was no appetite among these conservative cohorts for applying the Article II Section 1 prohibition against the GOP's 2008 candidate, John McCain, a white man born in Panama.

Mr. Romney's initial choice to to stir life back into the issue raised consistency questions peculiar to the Romney clan. Mitt's father -- Governor George Romney of Michigan -- was driven to distraction by his own "birther" movement when he ran in the Republican presidential primaries of 1968. Supporters of his opponent, Richard Nixon, argued that George Romney's presidency would be unconstitutional because Romney had been born in Mexico where his grandfather and five wives had fled to evade America's polygamy laws.

On a more salient point with relevance to the current campaign, the 1787 Constitutional Convention included the Article II Section 1 prohibition due to the prevailing fear that a foreign power might otherwise gain undue influence over America's democracy. Ironically, the greatest threat of that outcome today comes from those Super PACs which Romney's allies and campaign staffers have pioneered in Iowa. Arguably, Super PACs now pose the most menacing platform for foreign and private interests to gain an alarming hold on the White House. Under the current Supreme Court holding in Citizens United v. FEC, there is nothing to stop foreign governments or foreign owned corporations from secretly donating hundreds of millions of dollars to Super PACs enabling them to pick favored candidates and destroy their opponents.

Prior to his withdrawal from the presidential contest on February 28, 1968, George Romney ran an extraordinarily honest, thoughtful and honorable campaign. The senior Romney, a former Chairman and CEO of American Motors Corporation, criticized the military industrial complex for lying to Americans about Vietnam and mocked the products of Detroit's Big Three as "gas guzzling dinosaurs." He was a vocal advocate of Civil Rights and anti-poverty legislation. He supported strong unions as the launching pad for America's middle class and criticized conservative palaver about "rugged individualism," unrestricted free markets, and wholesale corporate deregulation as "nothing but a political banner to cover up greed." Romney, a Mormon bishop, refused to work on Sundays (with rare exception), fasted before big decisions, spurned dirty campaigning and other appeals to the dark forces of ignorance, greed, racism and division.

As Governor Mitt Romney grapples with his Party's national banner, the test of his moral fiber will be the vigor with which he resists the dark impulse of ignorance, greed, vitriol, demagoguery and division and how robustly he safeguards America's interest in a strong and independent democracy. Will Romney lead the GOP with the brand of decency that is his heritage, or will he choose instead to outsource indecency and mudslinging to surrogates and Super PACs?