On 13 June, the starting gun fired, the racetrack trumpet sounded and an energetic gaggle of men – and one woman – gathered in a hall in a small town in the New England state of New Hampshire for the opening round of the 2012 presidential race in America. Each would-be candidate was trying to create the vision that he or she was the right person for the challenges of the times and best-qualified for nomination. Welcome to the silly season of Republican politics. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
This is the beginning of months and months of crafting and refining applause lines and soundbites. Most importantly perhaps this was an early opportunity for each to attempt to differentiate himself or herself from the rest of the pack in the minds of Republican Party activists and the more publicly partisan of media spinners, watching closely on CNN to see what they thought about it, these claimants to the White House.
In contrast to news junkies, journalists, partisan grass-roots activists, Teapartyers and campaign veterans waiting to be hired on and who are even now parsing the presumed wit and wisdom of a Newt Gingrich from that of a Tim Pawlenty, the vast majority of Americans were almost certainly doing something else that evening. More normal people were finishing supper, watering the lawn, putting babies to bed, watching a baseball game on television, fiddling with their computers and talking with friends and relatives via Facebook or Skype, preparing for an upcoming summer vacation, playing with their Wiis and Play Stations – or hunting for jobs on the Internet (there’s still 9% unemployment in America after all). For most, however, you could practically hear them cry out into the summer evening “It’s just too damned early for this. No! No! Not yet! Come back next year!”
But by the time the debate was finished, the chattering class had already moved into action, issuing verdicts on how things had gone. And in fact, this bit of prime-time cable television represented the first substantive moment of clash between the realistic (and maybe some less realistic) claimants for the chance to challenge Barack Obama about 16 months, time.
As Slate’s political correspondent, Jacob Weisberg described the scene: “The GOP’s early presidential skirmishing took place in a land of conservative make-believe, where tax cuts grow on trees and President Obama can be described as any sort of alien—foreign-born, Muslim, collectivist—that one chooses.
“Obama’s spring peak came at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in late April, when he jovially deflated Trump, while the Navy Seals were en route to Abbottabad. But since then, the political weather has turned less favourable. Unemployment rose to a politically treacherous 9.1%, while the Dow fell nearly 1,000 points from its peak. The odds of a serious economic aftershock to the Great Recession have risen. Most alarming, the Republican Party appears gradually to be going sane.
“The GOP presidential field, while hardly dominated by political giants, appears far less outlandish than one might have predicted….candidates competed not for evangelical or libertarian favour, but for the status of someone plausible to compete with the president for swing voters.”
Only a half-century ago, a presidential candidate started his pursuit of the nomination slowly, in the harsh New English winter, a few months before the first primary election in New Hampshire. There they went, under the national radar, from small town diner to small town diner, house to house, church and union hall to church and union hall on the rubber chicken circuit (named for the quality of the cuisine) to build some real street credibility with shoe-leather journalists, refining their message to potential supporters and, as we used to say, “taking the pulse of the American people”. The broadcast media gave the lead-up to that New Hampshire primary only limited attention – the three national evening TV newscasts only lasted 15 minutes apiece, each evening, on the three networks (later it expanded to half an hour). There were no “all news all the time” cable or satellite television networks, no Internet blogs and, of course, no digital social media. None. Newspapers were still top of the heap, but local news was king.
Watch: In GOP’s N.H. Debate, a ‘Tough Night’ for Pawlenty as Bachmann Builds Buzz (PBS)
And after that New Hampshire primary, certainly until the late 1960s, the next big prize was in West Virginia in the early spring, followed by just a half-dozen or so other primaries. After that, it was on to the two party conventions in late summer. The real battles took place inside the traditional smoke-filled rooms of party bigwigs who, more often than not, really were the kingmakers, winnowing out the weak sisters and narrowing down the field of candidates as quickly as possible to get to their strongest possible ticket – balanced by region and the ideological wings of their respective parties.
Now, of course, we’re a generation deep into what Bill Clinton’s people dubbed “the permanent campaign”. Would-be candidates start as early as they can (in some cases, as with Mitt Romney, just after the previous presidential election) to recruit staff, supporters and financial backers, and to garner sympathetic media coverage from columnists and television talking heads – all with the aim of creating a sense of inevitability about their candidacies.
Then, as primaries and caucuses actually begin, candidates try to pick the places in which they believe they can win and put their maximum effort, and cash, there. Or, if they come in second or third in a particular primary or caucus, to game the story about how that is actually a win, anyway, by virtue of the demographics of that state or the salience of a particular issue like corn to ethanol subsidies (basically an Iowa-only issue) that barely registers as a national concern. As primaries and caucuses have become the way to pick most of the delegates committed to candidates for the conventions, the usual winning strategy is build momentum as early as possible – hence the hype around this 13 June debate that selects no delegates, knocks out no candidates and guarantees – well – absolutely nothing. Nada.
So, who won? That’s about all people want to know at this stage, really. So far, the media says that while nobody broke away from the pack, there were actually a couple of reasonably clear winners – and some semi-losers. First of all, a gold star goes to CNN’s John King for, besides keeping this whole rowdy circus under control, actually figuring out a new gimmick for presidential candidate debates. King’s contribution was the either-or question, as in, which do you prefer: Coke or Pepsi; chicken or beef; the Big Mac or the Whopper, troops in or out of Afghanistan? Or, as a behaviour theory psychologist would term it – the forced choice alternative.
Then there was Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Up until the debate, for most mainstream commentators, she was an outlier, an afterthought, a right-wing zany given to wild, even outrageous over-the-top statements, as with her assertion that President Obama’s trip to India had cost the American taxpayer the rough equivalent of the GDP of Luxembourg. Heretofore a favourite of some sharper-edged social conservatives and Tea Party types, Bachmann seems to have defanged herself somewhat in the minds of the rest of the party as she came across as a straight shooter – and she took the perfect opportunity of the debate to declare her formal candidacy – right in the middle of the debate. Now that is one audacious, innovative, gutsy move.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney reaffirmed his position, if not as the frontrunner, certainly as a leading candidate with the stature to be the candidate. However he still hasn’t quite figured out how to explain why the mandatory healthcare plan he pushed forward as governor of Massachusetts shouldn’t have been duplicated on a national level (i.e. Obamacare), let alone why he pushed for mandatory health insurance in the first place, but now wants social and fiscal conservatives to back him. Jon Huntsman, Barack Obama’s former ambassador to China and a former governor of Utah (and a Mormon like Mitt Romney) probably did himself a bit of good by not appearing. He has held off the declaration of his candidacy until next week – although he still needs to figure out how to explain why he was a devil’s, er, Obama administration’s appointment in the first place. Correctly stage-managed, however, he can project the image as the only candidate who has real foreign policy experience, and he is a less starchy, preachy kinda guy than his fellow former governor, Mitt Romney. And Huntsman rides a hog, played rock guitar and speaks Mandarin to boot – none of which are in Romney’s CV.
While winning this debate may not mean much right now, being thought to have lost it can still hurt. Businessman Herman Cain lost some of the momentum he had gained as a genuine Horatio Alger tale: An African-American-up-from-the-working-class-by-his-very-own-bootstraps-cancer-survivor-verbally-adroit-Republican-successful-businessman. Ron Paul, the perennial Tea Party favourite, and the man who virtually breathed life into the movement in the first place, seemed comfortable in his skin as he always does, but his views on the Federal Reserve Bank, the currency, a national defence posture and the budget may be too extreme even for most Republicans.
Meanwhile, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum are certainly not yet household names and their performances, by most accounts, did little to break away from the pack. And then there was Newt Gingrich, who may never recover from the shock of his campaign staff firing him as a candidate just days before the debate. As a group, while the candidates took a few careful barbs at each other, most of them heading Mitt Romney’s way, as a group they saved most of their shots for the incumbent president.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Republicans attacked Obama for his foreign policy – blaming him for military adventurism in Libya, and his overextended stays in Afghanistan and Iraq. In doing this, the GOP gaggle seems to be playing to American national public opinion that now points to the fact that Americans may have lost patience with the latter two struggles – and also feel less than comfortable with the explanations, so far, for the goals and purposes of the Libyan effort – even if it would be hard to find anyone in the US who supports the putative, would-be “President of Africa”.
This shift in Republican views on foreign policy (and effectively a repudiation of the expansionist, no-limits views of George W Bush, no less) happened as one by one the candidates in the debate shrugged off Bush’s internationalist legacy.
Media responses to the show were probably pretty predictable. The New York Times editorialised about the debate and the shifts in the Republican Party, noting how far from the real issues the Republicans remain.
Even The New York Times’ in-house conservative, David Brooks, wrote that while the Democrats are living in the past, the Republicans seem to have drifted off to some imaginary cloud-cuckoo-land. He wrote the other day: “I’ll be writing a lot about the presidential election over the next 16 months, but at the outset I would just like to remark that I’m opining on this whole campaign under protest…. Their programmes are unusually unimaginative. Their policies are unusually incommensurate to the problem at hand. The Republican growth agenda — tax cuts and nothing else — is stupefyingly boring, fiscally irresponsible and politically impossible. Gigantic tax cuts — if they were affordable — might boost overall growth, but they would do nothing to address the structural problems that are causing a working-class crisis.
“Republican politicians don’t design policies to meet specific needs, or even to help their own working-class voters. They use policies as signalling devices — as ways to reassure the base that they are 100% orthodox and rigidly loyal. Republicans have taken a pragmatic policy proposal from 1980 and sanctified it as their core purity test for 2012.
“As for the Democrats, they offer practically nothing. They acknowledge huge problems like wage stagnation and then offer… light rail! Solar panels!…. That’s because they too are trapped in a bygone era. The Hamiltonian agenda would be pro-market, in its place, and pro-government, in its place….”
Maybe it’s a good thing for the Republicans that so few voters are not yet fully engaged with the Republican Party’s internecine struggle over tax, budget and economic growth policies, or in orphaning Bush’s foreign policy legacy. Now that the candidate field seems virtually settled, unless Texas Governor Rick Perry, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or politician-turned-reality-show-media-celeb Sarah Palin (although polls say some 60% of Americans have already concluded she’s not up to the job) decide to muddy the waters by joining in, the next couple of months will give the declared candidates a chance to tune their messages, listen to people and eventually figure out what they are for, rather than just what they are against.
In the meantime, Barack Obama – ahem, remember him? – will be using all the tools of the presidency to remind voters he is the president and he is the one who has been dealing with the tough business of governing while those Republicans have been having their dysfunctional family argument about who will more severely cut taxes, spending – and Medicare and Social Security. We’ve got a long way to go before this one is over. Pack provisions for a long, long march to November 2012. DM
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Photo: Republican presidential hopefuls (L-R) former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich (R-GA), former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain pose at the first New Hampshire debate of the 2012 campaign at St. Anslems College in Manchester, New Hampshire June 13, 2011. REUTERS/Joel Page
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