Quick Takes on the Republican Race
Once again I'm finding myself caught between satisfaction at Republican actions that would seem to harm their chances of winning the presidency this November, and dismay-bordering-on-horror at the unprecedentedly horrible consequences if they do somehow win. It's hard to contemplate a Gingrich presidency without venturing into H.P. Lovecraft territory; even George Will this morning made reference to the nauseating prospect of entrusting nuclear launch codes to that unwell man.
To their credit, the "Republican establishment" pretty surely won't allow that to happen. Sure, they might be happy enough to countenance environmental catastrophe that mostly will be felt in their grandchildren's time, or to allow the accumulated unfairness of our economic system to push toward eventual destabilization and something like revolution--again, after they're gone. But when Newt has a case of the sads and nukes Iran, or even just calls Nancy Pelosi a See-You-Next-Tuesday in the middle of the State of the Union, they'd own a piece of that, and they can't find that acceptable.
So I don't think Gingrich ultimately will get much closer to the White House than he is right now. But who will they nominate? It must now be clear to the Republicans just how poor a politician Mitt Romney is, and how particularly mismatched he is to this moment. The core Republican premise since 1968 has been that the American electorate will countenance economic elitism so long as their leaders can portray cultural populists with conviction.
Thus their most successful presidential candidates have been really rich and/or politically experienced guys who nonetheless have the performance chops to connect with the pissed-off white Christian masses: Nixon (eventually), Reagan, George W. Bush. The guys who couldn't do it as well were Jerry Ford, who from history's distance just seems like too nice a guy; and George H.W. Bush, who won a race he probably shouldn't have in 1988 because of a personally beloved predecessor and an utterly inept Democratic opponent and lost a race he probably shouldn't have in 1992 because he faced a master politician in Clinton and the same inability to connect that now threatens Mitt Romney's prospects.
The more people see of Romney, the less they like him. Will also noted that Mitt now has competed in 25 elections in his career; his record is 6-19. True, neither Iowa nor South Carolina was very friendly ground for him--but I'd argue that those states are more representative of the sort of voters he'd need to win jump-ball states like Ohio, North Carolina and maybe Pennsylvania than the more favorable electorate in New Hampshire where he won. The paradox is that the more he chases those hardcore, less educated, white cultural conservatives, the more he probably damages himself with the moderates in both parties and independents who theoretically might choose him over Obama.
Why is Romney so ineffective as a politician? I think much of it has to do with how transparently hard he's trying! My brother-in-law among many others has made the point that, at bottom, he's kind of similar to Obama: seems even-keeled, digs on data, a moderate by temperament, bit of a cold fish. I guess to make up for this, he's attacked Obama in such over-the-top and factually incorrect terms that even (especially?) those who really do hate the president must feel they're being "sold to."
Probably this sense is reinforced when Romney shows his glass jaw--most obviously on the taxes, but in general when he's pushed on the predatory capitalism he helped create. This exposes a bug in the RomneyBot program: he's proud of what he did at Bain Capital, but knows on some level that it's politically disadvantageous to express this. Of course he hates the construct of "the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent"; he's in the 1 percent of the 1 percent! At the same time, he's clearly smart enough to understand how difficult it's going to be to make a substantive case both that he accumulated his wealth as a result of adding tangible value to the world, as a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates did, or that he's "earned" his absurdly favorable tax rate through the good his money has done. In both cases, he's been "successful" under the rules of a crooked game--rules, in some cases, that he helped create. So you get bumbling, stumbling, mumbling responses like this one.
I guess the theory of Romney's campaign and his establishment supporters is that the energy on the Republican side would come from opposing a president they revile, particularly if the economy remains tepid or, even better for their purposes, declines again. But you can't beat something with nothing, and Romney seems as close to nothing as we've seen in American politics in a very long time.
If the economy is bad enough and Romney is able to tack back to the middle, he still could win. But he's not loved and he's not trusted, even (especially) among the voters who should comprise the core of his support. Given that Gingrich, Frothy Mix and Ron Paul are all unacceptable and almost certainly unelectable, one is pushed toward the conclusion that the eventual Republican nominee for president might not even be in the race right now.