MSNBC’s Harris-Perry: Romney’s Mormon Problem, Obama’s Link to O.J.

MSNBC’s new weekend host talks about her new show and the 2012 election

MSNBC continues to bulk up its weekend coverage, and the latest addition to the line-up is frequent contributor and guest host Melissa Harris-Perry.

A professor of political science at Tulane University and a columnist for The Nation, her new post puts her before a nationally televised audience every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. ET to noon starting on Feb. 8.

Harris-Perry talked to TheWrap about the plan for her show, Mitt Romney and "The Book of Mormon" — and an unlikely link between Barack Obama and O.J. Simpson.

How did the show come about?
I’ve spent several years as an MSNBC contributor, and this summer I had a chance to sit in for Rachel Maddow when she took her vacation. From that time there were conversations about my getting a show and my response was always, "No, absolutely not becaue I can’t give up my job as a professor and I have a young daughter."

And then Chris Hayes blew the weekends wide open on MSNBC with his show “Up.” He somehow convinced [MSNBC President] Phil Griffin that there was an audience at 7 a.m. for politics. As soon as that happened I said, "Oh, that I can do."

What is the vision for the show?
I see the show as being three things. One, smart information and information you won’t have gotten all week. Second is analysis — really trying to work through “What does this information mean?” The third piece for me — and probably the piece I still have to convince people on — is I want to generate a broader definition of what counts as political.

This has been my primary intellectual project as an academic. Politics is not just voting and elections. It’s not just what happens between Washington, D.C., and New York. I want this show to go west of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon line to think about how policies and politics impact community, how arts and culture are pushing politics.

I see politics in Saturday morning conversations in barbershops, Beyonce videos, new books and Broadway shows.

Also Read: MSNBC Contributor Melissa Harris-Perry Gets Her Own Weekend Show

So what are some examples of stories, of books, of shows that you would have woven into your show?
The debate on personhood in Mississippi was close to my heart as a reproductive-rights supporter and someone living in Louisiana. If I had a show and autonomy we’d have been in Mississippi. I would have been talking with abortion care providers and potentially talking with young women who have either sought or are seeking help,

Other moments we just miss all together. I think it's fascinating that "Book of Mormon" is this wildly popular Broadway show at the same time there is clearly some gut-clenching anxiety about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism in the Republican primary.

So you believe that Romney’s religion is a significant factor in the tepid support for him among conservatives, is this so-called “ceiling” at 25 percent of the vote?
I do, and that’s part of why I want to have that conversation. It’s not clear to me that it’s naked discrimination – "I don’t like Romney because he’s Mormon." My sense having descended from Mormons is that more traditional Christianity is accepted as true with a capital T. When you have a new religion – like Latter Day Saints – and someone can say, "My great grandfather made that," it can’t be real. It feels too present and makes people uncomfortable.

On the topic of discrimination and race, do you feel the level of animosity directed at President Obama is a direct result of his race?
When it comes to Republicans co-governing with the president, race is strategic. It’s not the basis of the resistance. The massive resistance against Bill Clinton and health-care reform and his impeachment is clear evidence that even if it’s a white guy in the Oval Office,  partisan battles can go all the way to the extreme.

You look for weaknesses and exploit them. With Clinton you go after his sexual practices and potentially problematic financial practices. You look at Obama and something easy to exploit is the latent American racial anxiety, which has a good 400 years of policy and psychology and cultural influence. Blackness provides a strategic opportunity for resisting him.

Also Read: New MSNBC Host Chris Hayes Channels Rachel Maddow — and Tim Robbins

Given the widespread disenchantment with Obama's among Democrats, do you think that support from blacks will be as significant as it was in 2008? 
It depends on how ugly it gets. One of the things that brought African-American primary voters to Obama in ‘08 was the sense that the campaign got racialized by the Clintons in South Carolina, the sense that Obama was under attack not only from Republicans but by white members of the Democratic party. Black voters rally behind someone when they perceive an attack.

Part of my point about why cultural stuff matters is that this relates to why black people supported O.J. Simpson. He wasn’t some great black leader. He was a tremendously successful black person, and it appeared the police were after him. If you're black and white people are after you, we will be there and we will get behind you. Particularly with African-American men.

So if Obama runs against Rick Santorum and he says things like the blah people? Sure they will.

If he ends up running against Romney, who continues to say, "He’s a good guy, he's a nice guy but he’s just in over his head," Obama will still get 90 percent of the black vote but not as aggressive a turnout.

You just brought up Santorum. Do you believe he is a real threat to win the nomination, or do the Iowa results confirm what many have suspected all along – that Romney will inevitably be the candidate?
I continue to have extraordinary faith in the orderliness of the Republican Party. I assume that they are going to nominate Mitt Romney, and I also assume that Santorum is not much longer even going to be seen as a top viable candidate.

But crisis moments from this year give me some pause. The debt ceiling was one. I couldn’t bring myself to believe we really weren’t going to raise it. But though we raised it, we went so far we still saw the credit downgrade.

With the NBA, I could not believe the NBA couldn’t work it out. I believe in the orderliness and profit margins of pro sports. But they did take a hit and were less orderly than expected.

I continue to believe the orderly Republican Party will nominate Romney, but it might turn out to be the NBA.

So if Romney is the candidate, does that disappoint you? You’re getting a new show and you have Romney, who is not the most exciting candidate, against Obama, who is not particularly exciting either.
No, and the reason is that as much as its fun to have the conversations about the crazy, the fact is that anyone who wins the nomination of one of our two major parties has a real chance of being President of the United States and I want a grown-up in that job. It can be a grown-up with whom I fundamentally disagree, but even if it’s less sexy I’d prefer to have the most serious candidates.

A lot has been made, at least from the left side of the aisle, of how nutty this Repubican field is. Excluding Huntsman, who can’t seem to get any traction with the populace, do you believe there serious candidates beyond Romney?
I guess Newt Gingrich is serious, too. He’s just so petulant and angry — but we’ve had that kind of president before. There’s no way around fact that he’s also a serious candidate. And that is putting Huntsman aside, who I think is a real grown-up.

Before you go I wanted to ask you about your latest book since it's still new. If you don't mind, explain its subject and why you chose to write it.
It's my second book and an academic book, but one that I hope is pretty accessible. It's about African-American women and poltics, but, again, with a more expansive definition of politics. It's not about Condoleeza Rice or Barbara Jordan but what it means to try and be a full active citizen and black woman at the same time. It tries to take a long historical view and ask what are the primary negative stereotypes that influence both how black women are seen by others and how they see themselves.