Reid vs. Romney probably struck most Americans as so much partisan bickering.
But for Utahns, Mormons specifically, the weeks-long debate over Mitt Romney’s taxes had a back story. Because Mormons have a love-hate relationship with wealth. And Romney, the LDS faithful’s great hope for political validation, is very wealthy.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are a little conflicted about that. Or they should be.
It all started almost a month ago when Reid—the top Democrat in Washington and, more importantly, a boxer—stood on the Senate floor and claimed an unnamed “source” had told him Romney (worth $250 million) hadn’t paid taxes for 10 years. And Romney—the top Republican, for a season at least and, more importantly, not a boxer—couldn’t help but take the bait, insisting that he paid 13 percent of his income in taxes. That’s less than the average American taxpayer pays, but not nothing.
“The fascination with taxes I’ve paid I find to be very small-minded compared to the broad issues that we face,” Romney said. “I paid taxes every single year.”
But it didn’t end there.
To add insult to injury, Utah industrialist/philanthropist/Mormon Jon Huntsman Sr. urged Romney to come clean in an interview with a Washington Post columnist: “I feel very badly that Mitt won’t release his taxes and won’t be fair with the American people,” Huntsman said, insisting he wasn’t Reid’s source.
As so, a two-day story dragged into 10 times that.
The White House offered to let the issue go if Romney would release five years of tax returns, from 2007 to 2011. He declined.
The same day, the candidate’s wife waded in. When NBC’s Natalie Morales asked about taxes, Ann Romney got huffy.
“Mitt is honest. His integrity is, is just golden. We pay our taxes,” Romney said. “Beyond paying our taxes, we also give 10 percent of our income to charity. So we have no issues that way, and the only reason we don’t disclose any more is, you know, we just become a bigger target.”
Reid’s claim started to look kind of legitimate. You have to wonder what’s in those tax returns the Romneys are trying so desperately to keep private.
Even the would-be first couple, with their garage elevators and NASCAR team-owning friends and dressage ponies, now seem uncomfortable about their money.
Before the GOP National Convention in Tampa this week, handlers tried to make the Romneys sound just like you and me: He irons his own shirts! She shops at Costco!
It’s not surprising, given what they’ve learned at church: Like all Christians, Mormons know the Sermon on the Mount well and its admonishment to lay up treasures in heaven rather than on Earth. But if they’re like many Mormons, they also absorbed a sort of common-man’s Calvinism—the average churchgoer’s belief that the righteous prosper, that the lawyers and business executives who often become bishops and stake presidents are singled out for their superior faith and not their superior suits. If given the choice between pious poverty and the good life, like most Americans, Mormons pay their tithing and pray for the beachfront house in La Jolla.
Matthew Bowman, a religion professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, says the Reid-Romney spat reveals a schism between two strains of Mormonism: Romney represents the Mormon elite. “He’s very much typical of elements of Mormon leadership who have sought the cultural respectability wealth buys in America, and he’s finding that he’s new money,” Bowman says. Reid, on the other hand, is a marginalized convert, “very much unimpressed with the cultural legitimacy Romney’s wealth is seeking.”
It’s worth noting wealth is relative: Harry Reid is no pauper. After years in Washington’s most exclusive club (the Senate), the kid who grew up in poverty in Searchlight, Nev., converted to Mormonism and put himself through law school working as a Capitol Hill policeman now has a net worth of $3 to $10 million, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Kelly Patterson, a fellow with Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections & Democracy, figures Reid’s efforts landed with a thud in Utah. “People tend to see the world through partisan lenses. And Utah is a Republican state,” Patterson says. “John Kerry’s wealth wasn’t a big deal in Massachusetts. And the Romney wealth isn’t a big deal in Utah.”
Yet Reid, a gleeful monkeywrencher from the political party that fights to keep the social safety net in place, managed to keep the Romneys sputtering for the better part of a month. He played a partisan game masterfully.
At the same time, his meddling highlighted an uncomfortable truth about the fellow Mormon in the ring. In the weeks since Reid threw the first punch, Romney has gone on to pick as his running mate Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. A big fan of atheist and libertarian darling Ayn Rand, Ryan’s claim to fame is a plan to balance the federal budget with tax cuts for the wealthy and replace Medicare with a voucher program. And now, the Romney campaign, which seemed to be moving back to center after the primaries, has to absorb Ryan’s Randish ideology while running from the details. Rand’s glorification of selfishness is about as far from the New Testament’s Golden Rule as you can get.
Still, Utah Mormons back their guy in overwhelming numbers. A June poll by BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections & Democracy found that 77 percent of Mormon voters believe Romney’s candidacy is a good thing for the LDS Church. Of course they’ll vote for him.
Even if he is very, very rich. Or maybe, because of it.