US 2012: Full contact tennis begins
What a difference a fortnight makes in politics. Just two weeks ago, it seemed like we were wondering how Mitt Romney was going to capture his party's nomination. Now, just 14 days later, it seems like we're already deep into the mutual-accusation stage of a bad marriage. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
When Rick Santorum was still actively campaigning, he had come on so strongly with his religious-social-values agenda that the media shorthand for his approach had become Santorum's “war on women” for his espousal of policies that – at least in some minds – threatened to encourage a return to a 21st century kind of barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen offensive as a response to feminism and women's liberties. And this didn't even include the Santorum challenge to higher education as an aspirational right or – at least in theory – his push for a re-imposition of fundamentalist religious values to a position front and centre in the public square.
But eventually Santorum saw the harsh political realities written on the wall, suspended his campaign for the presidency and that, together with the lack of any other viable social- conservative challenge to Mitt Romney, has meant that while there are still a dozen or more state-by-state primaries to carry out officially, Romney will be his party's nominee.
Having finally triumphed, however, Romney has had to sidestep further and further to the right to capture his party's nomination. This is a position that is sufficiently at odds with his previous political heritage and history, forcing him to announce, for example, that he is “severely conservative” socially and politically, which is thoroughly at odds with his political biography.
Therefore it continues to ring false with Republican conservatives, who would usually line up obediently behind their nominee, as well as numerous independent voters. So far at least, this is contributing to making him look and sound rather like the American political version of the Tin Man. The charge? No identifiable heart. Or, core.
Moreover, the Romney campaign had, at least until the early part of the year – and clearly still hopes to do so – set its cap on making its case with the claim that by virtue of his experience as a venture capitalist/leveraged buyout specialist, before becoming a moderate Republican governor in a generally Democratic Massachusetts, he was the alpha dog in economics. Rather than that cowardly European-style socialist in the White House now, he, Romney, could help the country manage its way out of economic harm's way and into a sustained recovery after the lingering effects of the 2007-8 financial crisis.
The problem here is that the economy has not been co-operating with this putative narrative particularly effectively. Unemployment continues to creep downward, economic indices that speak to business confidence continue to become more optimistic, and the petrol price has stubbornly refused to rise much beyond $3.70 to the gallon (3.78 litres), rather than the threatened rise past $4/gallon – on its way to unprecedented levels beyond that point and well into the red zone politically for an incumbent president.
Even in foreign-policy terms, the world refuses to be particularly kind to Romney. The North Korean missile failed to work, the Israeli-Iran standoff has apparently come off the boiling point a bit, and even relations with China have eased a bit from some tenser moments as the Chinese seem consumed with the after-effects of the Bo Xilai purge.
And then, last week, it almost seemed as if the gods had handed the Romney campaign a gift. A Democratic Party operative, Hillary Rosen, chastised Ann Romney as someone who had never spent a day in her life in the workplace, in response to the candidate's claim that he really was sympathetic to the predicaments and challenges of women (unlike that other former Republican candidate, and as a way of addressing the serious deficit in support from female voters in polling data vis-á-vis Barack Obama). As proof of this proposition, Romney said he often turned to his wife to help him understand the challenges faced by women, and that they were not concerned with all those distracting peripheral social issues. Rather, they were concerned with the fact that the economy was soft and not getting better. Overextending this just a little bit too far, Romney then added that 92% of all jobs lost during the Obama administration had been those of women.
Rosen's metaphorical snort of disdain was like a trout fly to a game fish. The Romney campaign assailed Rosen for attacking a woman (Ann Romney) who had raised five sterling sons, had slaved away on the home front day after day for decades to do this, that the Obama campaign philosophically and politically undervalued the contribution of stay-at-home women everywhere and, besides, Mrs Romney had done all this while coping with some serious health concerns: MS and cancer.??By the time the first and second rounds of this scuffle were finished, Barack Obama – and his Missus – had had to come forward to say they valued stay-at-home wives and that, yes, they fully agreed that raising children was hard work too.
Obama then had to suggest that the candidates' wives and families should be off the table as far as the 2012 campaign was concerned. But as to who got the better of this volley, cynics, may well be sitting back and thinking that while it initially looked as if the Obama forces lost the point, the larger effect was that it has put the Republicans back on the defence and pinned the “war on women” tag back on them all over again.
They are the ones who now have to explain how stay-at-home moms represent all female voters and how the advice of one rich woman with three or four homes and a brace of Cadillacs really represents women worried about the economy, women who juggle work and family without a bevy of housekeepers and gardeners. And where is Romney on these issues anyway?
Romney is now going to be spending more and more time explaining why he isn't in the “war on women” camp á la Rick Santorum – especially if social conservatives make Santorum-friendly positions a part of the Republican Party campaign platform at the convention. And he still has to find a way to make his case on why he, Romney, is the right man to take on the country's economic stewardship, or bring his untried ideas on foreign policy into position instead of Obama's.??Make no mistake, despite not being a natural inspirational leader or master of public rhetoric, Mitt Romney is definitely no fool, his advisors are sharp, his financial backing is deep and he is, despite that smile, a political gut fighter of considerable experience, skill and spirit. And there is still substantial economic distress in the county: a lot of voters remain disillusioned with the failure of the Obama administration to bring down unemployment to a level that would make his re-election a near certainty compared to historical experiences of other incumbent presidents. And the Israelis or Iranians – let alone the difficulties in Afghanistan, where there is still a major contingent of US forces – could upset all foreign-policy calculations between now and November.
Instead of the soaring rhetoric of the 2008 campaign, expect a tough trench-warfare-style of a 2012 campaign with lots of charges, counter-charges and sniping about the personal characteristics of the two candidates by political underlings and spear bearers.
What is curious, however, is that the two men have some real similarities in their lives. Both have risen far and profoundly, both have benefited from Ivy League educations and both come from groups who could easily be termed socially marginal. In Obama's case, he is famously the child of an African exchange student and a young white woman in Hawaii. In Romney's case, the candidate is the most famous scion of a high-achieving, yet frequently suspected religious minority: the Church of the Latter Day Saints, or Mormons. Oh, and by the way, both are the grandsons of polygamous grandfathers. Only in America. DM
Photo: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney delivers his pre-emptive rebuttal to U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union Speech in Tampa, Florida, on 24 January 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder.