Donkeys and Asses 

Utah Democrats ought to stop watching the LDS Church for signs and start running better campaigns.

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It happens every political season. LDS Church leaders send out the usual letter to stake presidents, read in front of congregations, reminding Mormons everywhere that they should be good citizens, vote, and be “full participants in political, governmental and community affairs.” And every year pundits, party leaders and consultants look for language in the letter that might be different from letters of the past.

In past letters the Church has traditionally reiterated its position that it endorses no “political candidates, platforms or parties.” But after reading this year’s letter issued last month, Utah Democrats pointed with glee to one particular sentence: “Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in the platforms of all major political parties.”

Presumably, this means that while members of the Green Party, Socialist-Workers Party, or Libertarians too small to count as “major” gnashed their teeth in bitter disappointment, Utah Democrats felt the surge and tingle of new possibilities. In a rare moment of grace and etiquette, we’ll sidestep the question of whether or not Utah’s Democratic Party still qualifies as “major” itself.

Utah Democrats, of course, claimed the church’s letter was something just short of revelation, a virtual declaration that any good Mormon could vote Democrat and still be considered a good Mormon. Utah Republicans basically told Utah Democrats to keep their pants on. There’s nothing uniquely different in this church letter from church letters past, they said. For it’s part, the LDS Church was characteristically gnomic, if not altogether mum. We issued a statement. It says what it says. The oracle has spoken. Move along, please.

The entire exercise is profoundly depressing, not the least because it paints active Mormons as people who can’t move a muscle or make an independent decision on one matter or another unless the LDS Church speaks first. Presumably, if church leaders told members to vote Republican, they’d respond in kind. The fact that anyone pays attention to what the church says in a letter to stake presidents helps no one, least of all Utah Democrats and Republicans.

Everyone knows full well the LDS Church is power broker No. 1 in Utah. And church leadership issues plenty of positions and statements. Be that as it may, let’s entertain the paradox, for a moment, that the best way to nurture political power in Utah is by tacitly acknowledging the LDS Church’s influence, but learning to ignore it all the same.

In fact, there are two very good reasons these edicts from on high should be politely ignored. First, the fact that Utah Democrats pay attention to them only highlights the party’s current state of desperation. Let local media make of it what they will. Utah Democrats will look a lot stronger and more independent if they stopped searching and waiting for church approval. I’d dare say that Utah Mormons would start to respect the Democratic Party a lot more, too. For that matter, so would a sizable crowd of Salt Lake City gentiles drawn more toward a healthy independent streak than a party grubbing around for signs of approval from influential institutions, religious or not.

The second good reason these edicts mean little or nothing is that there’s little difference between a Mormon Democrat and a Mormon Republican. Why, then, waste anyone’s time and attention when the LDS Church essentially makes the same point it did last political season?

Don’t get me wrong. If forced to choose between our own Sen. Orrin Hatch and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, I’d gladly cast my lot with the latter. But only a fool would say the difference between these two men, both devout Mormons, isn’t nominal. That’s because the LDS Church spends its political capital on three issues dear to its collective heart: a vehement stand against equal rights for gays and lesbians, a firm position against abortion and the consecration of anything deemed pro-family. So it is that both Hatch and Reid are opposed to abortion and gay marriage, and both voted for both Gulf Wars. Reid is just a lot less obnoxious in defending his positions, that’s all. And as a Democratic leader, of course he’s going to criticize the president. As a Republican, of course Hatch will defend the president. It’s an important difference, to be sure, but not always a paramount one.

Ironically, the one politician Utah Democrats might learn most from is none other than Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Forget his work during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Through compromise, earnest listening and creative policy-making, this devout Mormon and card-carrying Republican became leader of the bluest of blue states, not to mention a state where few of his co-religionists reside. Now, after drafting a promising health-care plan for the people of Massachusetts, he looks poised for the 2008 presidency. His chiseled looks and turn-on-a-dime savvy don’t hurt, either, of course. Utah is not Massachusetts by a long shot, but Romney is an exemplary case study in how someone from a minority party gained the trust and admiration of his opponents. Are any Utah Democrats interested in asking how he does it?

In the past, Utah Democrats were convinced the only way to win races was by floating as many white, male Mormons as possible onto the ballot. They made the mistake of believing that Republicans won office because of religion, not because of political ideologies. The fact that they’re still playing the religion card, reading church statements with a decoder’s eye, shows how much they’ve yet to learn.

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