America's electoral marathon: the next gear
Monday, 20 February, is officially the President’s Day holiday in America – celebrating George Washington’s birthday on 22 February as well as recognising Abraham Lincoln’s birthday 10 days earlier. The day seems to be a particularly appropriate one, therefore, to evaluate where the Republicans are in the picking of their candidate, and what strategy Barack Obama and his campaign advisors are developing to win again. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
The Republicans are now down to two candidates at the top – and two others behind them. After starting with nearly a dozen presidential wannabes, it is now basically Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney vying for the lead and the final nod to be the party’s candidate. Well behind are Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, with little or no chance to gain the nomination – in the opinion of virtually every analyst.
Let’s start with the nomination process among the Republicans. While there is now a brief hiatus in the primary and caucus contest with no voting taking place again until 28 February, between that date and Super Tuesday – 6 March – 13 states have primaries and caucuses, including such big population states as Ohio, Massachusetts, Georgia, Virginia and Michigan.
After this brief lull, the Republicans face these nine primaries and four caucuses with 518 delegates now at stake, more than three times the number that have been claimed so far in. Together with Arizona, Michigan’s primary comes on 28 February – representing a real make or break opportunity for Santorum to put the kibosh on the Mitt Romney machine and the mega-bucks behind it – after the assumption by many that it would be Romney’s implacable march to the nomination.
That clearly hasn’t happened yet; Romney’s inevitability was stopped – at least temporarily – by Santorum’s wins in the Missouri 'beauty contest' (although that didn’t actually accrue any delegates for him) plus wins in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses that did increase Santorum’s delegate total. In the aftermath of that development, national polls showed Republicans were beginning to line up increasingly behind Santorum. These same polls have also shown that incumbent Barack Obama would beat all four of the remaining Republican challengers. While it would be a close race with Romney, Obama would have larger margins against the others.
Now, however, the Michigan vote is being touted as a real test of two competing campaign styles (lots of money, lots of ads, lots of “I know how to create jobs” versus Santorum’s nostrums on the virtues of strong families), two clearly different candidates, and of the relative weight of key voting blocs among Republicans in general and Republican activists in particular. It can’t be overstated just how much the result in a primary election is dependent on the ability of a campaign to motivate its supporters to vote since voting levels in primaries are often just a fraction of the total number of those eligible to vote.
The wags are now painting this contest as one between a man with principles (albeit of the 13th century variety) versus a man with no principles whatsoever. Of the latter, Santorum supporters have offered the following joke to make their point: Three men walk into a bar, a conservative, a moderate and a liberal. The bartender says to them all, “Hi-ya Mitt!” Not subtle, but easy to remember and playing to the popular perception Romney is an ideological chameleon who in times gone by was perfectly happy to sponsor what was effectively “Obamacare” for the state of Massachusetts, was for abortion rights until he was against them, and who has had a sudden change of heart to become, in his words, “severely conservative”.
Then, following Michigan and Arizona, there is the Washington state caucus and then, a few days later, the 10 states vote on 6 March. For Newt Gingrich – the man who was recently described as the least liked politician in America in a poll – if he can win in at least some states such as his native state of Georgia, as well as Tennessee and Oklahoma (actually something of a border state between the North and South; and between South and Southwest), he lives to fight on till later – and possibly until the party’s national convention in late August in Tampa, Florida, as he has already said he will do.
But if he only wins in Georgia, for example, the pressure will come to him from the Republican establishment, the conservative coalitions and the Santorum campaign as well. In that eventuality, Gingrich will find himself pushed hard to end his campaign and endorse Rick Santorum instead as part of a last-ditch effort by Tea Party movement conservatives, social attitudes/family values supporters, evangelicals and fundamentalists to fend off a Romney win. Romney is almost as much an anathema to those groups as that lead-from-the-rear, American-in-decline-pessimist, Kenyan-anti-western-socialist now in the White House.
Meanwhile, Ron Paul continues to hold his loyal following and may even win a small (in population) Western or Rocky Mountain state or two, but no reputable poll puts him in the lead in any of the big (in population) states. Romney, assuming he can hold off the charge in Michigan, seems likely to hang on and win at least in the big states like Massachusetts, Ohio and especially Virginia, where neither Santorum nor Gingrich even managed to qualify to be on the ballot.
Ultimately the Republicans’ biggest challenge may turn out to be in keeping Paul from running as a third-party/write-in/independent candidate in November. On 19 February, on CNN’s State of the Union news show, when asked if he believed Santorum could actually beat Obama in the general election in November, he responded “I don't see how that's possible.” This could be a veiled endorsement of Romney as a kind of hold-your-nose and go with him so at least we can win. Or perhaps it is the first hint of a declaration that to Paul, his ideas matter more than following any old candidate just as long as he bears a Republican label.
Historically, independent or third party candidates have usually spelt defeat for the insurgent, as well as the party they ostensibly broke away from. This was true with Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, allowing Bill Clinton to win. And it was the case with Theodore Roosevelt bolting the Republicans in 1912, thereby permitting Woodrow Wilson to gain his first term. The outlier in this calculation is Harry Truman’s defeat of Thomas Dewey in 1948 in the face of revolts on the left via Henry Wallace and on the segregationist right with Strom Thurmond.
Of course Abraham Lincoln gained the Republicans their first presidential victory in 1860 as the Democrats split over how slavery could or could not be extended westward into the territories, running Stephen Douglas in the North and John Breckenridge in the South to succeed their incumbent, James Buchanan. In that election, the nearly extinct Whig Party had offered John Bell as a candidate under their compromise platform and new name, the Constitutional Union Party – but neither the new name nor the old policies did anything to forestall their extinction.
But what if neither Santorum nor Romney gains the required 1,144 delegates from among the 2,286 delegates to be selected, including any of the so-called super-delegates that are already elected officials who gain an automatic seat in the convention? Then it becomes the brokered convention of smoke-filled-room-legends and political cinema that goes on to second, third and even fourth ballots or more until a survivor is selected. While this would not be satisfactory to many in the party, it would, of course, be the answer to heart-felt prayers from every political journalist in America.
But this remains a very unlikely eventuality, given the Republicans’ rather desperate need to unite rather than feud in the face of an incumbent president they despise, and because a brokered convention would inevitably lead a significant faction of party activists and office holders left feeling they were now outside the tent – given the ideological divides between Romney and Santorum. And, of course, that would leave a lingering accusation in the air that the bosses (whoever they are) rather than the people (whoever they were) chose their candidate in the face of popular will.
As a result, if either of the candidates comes close, pressure will build in the weeks before the convention for one of the lesser candidates to release their delegates so that they could move to the leading – but not yet winning – contender. In this case, the obvious outcome is real pressure on Gingrich to throw his support to either Romney or Santorum, despite the mud that has been flung around already between the three of them. Think more George Clooney’s recent The Ides of March rather than Gore Vidal’s early 1960s play and film, The Best Man.
And so where is Obama in all of this? At one level, of course, he has to carry out a bit of smoke and mirrors for creating the illusion he is continuing to govern, despite the fact that virtually everything decided in the White House is seen in its political context. It is, after all, less than 10 months to the election and only seven months before the prime campaigning season – after Labour Day in early September between Obama and the final Republican contender.
On the domestic front, Obama gained a rare tactical victory over the Republican Party in Congress when the two sides reached agreement on a one-year extension of the cut in the payroll tax (the way the Social Security Trust Fund is financed and which represents a significantly regressive tax on income at the lower levels of earnings). The package the two parties finally agreed-to also included a significant extension of unemployment benefits. While it is not the full Obama jobs plan proposed last year, analysts say it amounts to around a $150-billion stimulus to the economy for 2012, not small change.
With his proposed budget – while it certainly will not be passed as proposed – the Obama administration did build into it a really big whack out of military spending, but neither his administration nor the Republicans have really come to grips with the fact the vast majority of government spending is actually in Social Security and Medicare (government health care for the elderly), plus debt interest and military spending. In particular, as the baby boomers age further, Social Security and Medicare promise to overwhelm all other federal spending. Under these realities, growth in the deficit is virtually unstoppable unless some serious reforms in Social Security and Medicare are agreed to although politicians see this as political suicide. This is because older voters tend to vote at higher rates than everyone else and they have proved to be vociferous defenders of the government programs that benefit them so substantially regardless of the larger budgetary impact.
On the plus side for Obama, unemployment has continued to decline to the 8.3% level over the past several months, according to official figures. Moreover, job creation is up, and other business confidence measures point in the right direction as well. If these developments continue, the Obama administration can use them to blunt Republican charges he has not been a fit steward of national economic health. In fact, one part of Democratic Party strategy is to point to this continuing Republican carping and say in response that Obama’s opponents are actually unhappy the economy is reviving. One potential fly in the political ointment, though, is the rise in petrol prices in America even before the summer holiday driving season – something Republicans point to as an inevitable outgrowth of Obama’s anti-exploration, anti-pipeline strategy – and even his unwillingness to make those pesky Middle Eastern types toe the line.
Originally, the overall Obama strategy was to cast the spotlight on the Romney ethos as a man who just doesn’t understand the national yearning for more fairness in the country’s taxes (shorthand for raise tax rates on the rich and their dividends, stock options, interest income and capital gains). Concurrently, the Obama plan was to let the image of Romney’s aggressive foreign policy agenda – take on Iran, vociferously side with Israel, tackle North Korea, confront China – compete with the reality of Obama’s ending of one war (Iraq), drawing down the second in Afghanistan and dealing with the terrorism side of things by getting to the leadership and killing them off, as with Osama bin Laden.
Now, however, the Obama team is starting to contemplate the possibility of a Santorum candidacy instead. In dealing with this, the new issue is really a reworking of something that seemed to have been substantially dealt with decades ago – the changing role of women in the workplace and the right to contraception. Santoroum has made his pitch on the family values pulpit as a rebuttal of a so-called “radical feminist project” designed to force women into the workplace and break apart traditional family structures. Santorum however became caught up in whether or not contraception was a right after all, and whether abortion should be legally available. In one less than positive moment for his campaign, a prominent supporter and financial backer told audiences that birth control could be carried out better by using an aspirin tablet, strategically placed between the knees of young women – as the adolescent, locker-room joke has explained it over the years. Not surprisingly, this has not gone down well.
Such have been the controversies from this that it is now a question whether much of the women’s vote (and especially the so-called “birth control moms”) is even available for Santorum to contest in a general election. A CNN poll released this week showed was supported by 37 % of men and but only 29% of women in the national GOP race. By contrast, for Romney, those numbers were 27% of men and 38% of women. In his 2006 re-election campaign, Santorum lost women by a whopping 22% points — 8% worse than he fared among men.
Meanwhile, several weeks ago, the Obama administration had proposed that Catholic organisations must also offer birth control opportunities via their institution-specific health insurance plans so as to provide equal treatment of women across the board. After harsh criticism from many Catholic as well as other faith-based organisations, they backed away from that earlier plan and substituted with a rule that the insurance companies themselves must offer such coverage but without reference to the specific organisation offering those health care plans. Given this quick switch, it might even be seen as a trap set for Santorum to rail against birth control and the Obama plan – and it was one he did walk right into, presumably alienating women even further.
So where does that leave the Obama camp now? First, they continue to act as if they were governing, not campaigning. Americans like to see their president at work. Second, he continues to play the “fairness” card for everything it is worth – there are obviously more people who earn less than $250,000 per year (where his new tax proposals would kick in) than above that figure. Third, he continues to stand strong but realistic, resolute but flexible, and forward-thinking on national security. The just-concluded Xi Jinping (China’s presumptive new head of government in 2013) visit didn’t do him any harm on that score either. They made their points about Chinese human rights and trade, even if they didn’t win them but Obama didn’t look to be kow-towing to Xi - and they even got a little pasella out of the deal with the new film export agreement.
Further, Obama keeps churning out proposals to reignite the economy and pushes the blame for their lack of passage on those obdurate Republicans. Finally, the Obama forces do a further pivot on social issues to let Santorum push himself further and further into the arms of those social values and family values people he needs for the Republican nomination – but whom he must somehow eschew or at least hold at arm’s length when it comes to the actual election. There are more votes in the middle than on the fringes after all.
While all of this looks straightforward, the one big problem for the Obama forces is the growing snarl over Iranian nuclear developments. That and the cry he’s been weak on the defence and support of Israel in the face of Iranian Islamic fundamentalism and threats of annihilation – especially since what happens there may be beyond the ability of the US to affect without hostilities. For this, a truly bad outcome would be an Israeli pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities – or an actual Iranian nuclear test – or, worst of all, both events in quick succession. The fallout from that could seriously wound the Obama camp’s argument that his way is the adult, mature way forward in a dangerous world. Absent that, though, one can almost see 2012 bumper stickers and buttons reading: Let him finish the job!
This time around, though, it will not be an Obama campaign that throbs with that incandescent intensity of Change We Can Believe In as in 2008. This time it will be the ground attack and trench warfare, one economic and values argument at a time. That is, after the Republicans figure out what kind of candidate they want to offer the nation. DM
For more, read:
- GOP contenders face 13-state test after brief lull at the AP website.
- Obama campaign shifts to also targeting Santorum in the AP.
- Rising Gas Prices Give G.O.P. Issue to Attack Obama at the New York Times.
- 2012: The year of 'birth control moms'? at Politico.com.
- Will women vote for Santorum? at Politico.com.
- Mitt Romney, as a student at a chaotic time for BYU, focused on family, church in the Washington Post.
- Rick Santorum tries to show he can win in November in the Washington Post.
- Which was the most important U.S. election ever? In the Washington Post.
- Why Michigan’s GOP Primary Won’t Change Anything for Romney in the New Republic.
- The Debate Debate in the New Yorker.
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama is pictured among Boeing employees after touring the Boeing production facility in Everett, Washington, February 17, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed.