Government & Politics

So you think Mitt’s got it sewed up? Get ready for GOP seams to rip

Mitt Romney. Photo by Matthew Reichbach, Creative Commons

At the indispensable Library Chronicles, Jeffrey often says the current race for the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination is basically a sham. He thinks all the maneuvering among the candidates, all the media hoopla over the televised debates, and all the changing poll numbers are just bread and circuses, not a true contest among rivals. Last month Jeffrey wrote that the process is all “just a goofy farce to keep us mildly entertained until [former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney] gets nominated. It always was.”

Is the political run-up to the GOP primary elections goofy? Sure it is. Farcical? Often. Mildly entertaining? You betcha.

However, Jeffrey overreaches when he claims Romney has always been the inevitable GOP nominee. I take issue with his argument, not because I disagree with his prediction of the outcome (although I do), but because I think his political analysis is pat and dismissive.

Perhaps Jeffrey’s reflexive cynicism clouds his judgment about the fluidity and instability of “the process” he criticizes. He may want to review some of our online discussions four years ago, when he and I last handicapped a race for president. (At the time, I believe Jeffrey favored either NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as the likely GOP nominee. Along with many others, he discounted then-Sen. Barack Obama’s chances to win the presidency.)  I would’ve thought that the surprising 2008 presidential race was a sufficient refutation of the notion that the “process” is purely an entertainment designed to obscure a  fait accompli. But apparently not. Huge political surprises happen and are likely to happen again this year.

Granted, conventional wisdom holds that Romney has the money and organization to outlast, if not dominate, his rivals. He also benefits from being a smart, poised candidate who is not prone to gaffes.

But there’s another side to the Romney bargain. Simply put, Republican voters don’t love him. They’re suspicious of his moderate background and history of flip-flops on key issues. Since the summer, opinion polls have shown Republicans engaged in a political version of speed dating. They’ve briefly swooned over several “non-Romney” candidates such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachman, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain. Each of these contenders led Romney in the polls, and then each of them fell as quickly as they rose. But that was their own doing. Romney merely benefited from their unforced errors. It wasn’t as if voters held them up to Romney and found them lacking. You’ll notice that as soon as one candidate’s boomlet ended, another began. It’s a revealing dynamic, because Romney has only managed to maintain his support in polls during his competitors’ rises and falls. He hasn’t consolidated and grown his support by collecting say, disenchanted Perry or Cain voters. In short, there’s a huge swath of voters who want someone (anyone?) other than Romney.

Shockingly, the latest boomlet in non-Romney support is around former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Much like McCain in 2007, Newt Gingrich’s campaign imploded almost as soon as it began. His staff left him during the summer (defecting mostly to Perry). And he was stuck with little money or organization. Yet now he’s leading the field by double digits.

When I noticed Gingrich creeping up in the polls in early November, I asked a GOP political analyst what accounted for his stealthy ascent. The analyst replied: “His debate performances!”

Indeed. The televised debates, for all their flaws, allow the electorate an important opportunity to see candidates think and react under pressure. It’s one of the very few times in an overlong campaign season when unscripted moments can occur. Debates are a revealing and valuable element in the “process” that Jeffrey criticizes, and they can greatly influence voters’ impressions of the candidates. (More explanation on this point in posts to come.)

For example, remember Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty? His presidential hopes evaporated during a debate. Pawlenty was challenged to stand behind his “Obamneycare” criticism of the health care initiative Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts. Instead of owning it, he blinked; and that was that.

Perry’s horrifying brain-freeze in the Nov. 9 debate is still the story of the campaign season (at least until Gingrich parlays his comeback into an Iowa caucus victory). It was one of the most uncomfortable moments in recent political history. Perry had made mistakes in earlier debates, but this was by far the most spectacular and damaging.

Many sharp observers of politics didn’t expect Perry’s sudden flameout. (First Draft’s Adrastos being a notable exception.) Among the true believers was Gov. Bobby Jindal and Jindal’s former chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, both of whom placed early bets on Perry. Their calculations about the Texan’s prospects were likely similar to The Hayride’s MacAoidh, whowrote this analysis back in June (my emphasis):

[If] Perry gets in, the 2012 GOP campaign fairly quickly becomes a Perry-Romney race unless something unusual happens. And Perry beats Romney, because Romney won’t disavow Romneycare and the Republican electorate wants nothing to do with government-run health care. Romneycare imposes a ceiling on his appeal which is too low for him to compete in a two- or three-man race or to drive some of the less-well-known candidates out of the field.

Perry doesn’t have a ceiling, unless he gets in and promptly face-plants – and nobody expects that would happen.

Unfortunately for MacAoidh’s candidate, “something unusual” did happen, and Perry’s face-plant was one for the ages. Nonetheless, MacAoidh’s observation about Romney being quite vulnerable as the race narrows was accurate, in my view.

Debate performances entirely account for the two biggest stories of the campaign season so far: Perry’s shocking fall, and Gingrich’s shocking rise. Both are mind-bending twists that few predicted. Yet, they are also results of the “process” that Jeffrey dismisses. He sees these debate-based dramas as a mere farcical prelude to an eventual Romney nomination. I view them more as a preview of “surprisingly unusual” turns in the presidential race to come.

Sure, Romney might get nominated. But I’d rate his current chances at little less than a coin flip. He’s not a true frontrunner, he’s just a solid “default” candidate blessed with a freakish array of flawed opponents. Do we really think the Tea Party is going to unite in the GOP primaries around Romney – a former moderate known for policy flip-flops? Very doubtful. In tough economic times, will conservatives express their frustration by voting for a candidate merely because he makes fewer errors during TV debates than his competitors? No way. The GOP electorate is practically begging for a competent alternative to Romney. That’s the meta-dynamic revealed in all these dramas. Perhaps Gingrich, the current Romney ”alternative,” can take advantage of this dynamic. (Of course, that would surprise me too.)

But even if the campaign season eventuates in an Obama vs. Romney match-up, neither side will be thrilled with their nominee. So then we’ll likely see an ambitious independent (read: wealthy businessman) enter the race to jostle things up further, as Ross Perot did back in 1992.

The wrong way to look at this campaign season, though, is to view it as having been a done deal all along. It’s not. To a fascinating degree, we’ve already seen how the debates have made the race fluid and unpredictable. And I see little evidence this trend is about to stop now.

My recommendation: bet on the unusual.

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  • greg p

    Whither Nader?

  • Well Okay, if we have to talk about me…

    First, let’s clear this up. “Discounted Obama’s chances to win” is one way to put it, although you’ll recall the bulk of my criticism of Obama and his supporters (I called them “cultists” They were greatly insulted by this) was that they were presenting us with a Pepsi commercial instead of a meaningful opposition campaign and so were setting themselves up to be greatly disappointed by what I was already calling the “Clinton II Administration” As much as I adore saying “I told you so” I’m not even sure I have to do that now. The Health Care “reform” brought to you by PHarma and the non-recovery brought to you by the Geithner-Summers Rubinite Administration basically speak for themselves.

    Also there’s this Daily Kos election map thingy I filled in just before the election where I called the final electoral college results right down to the exact number just to remind you that I do in fact pay attention to “dynamics” and whatnot.

    Anyway onto this season.

    I’ll give you this much. During the early stages of Campaign 2008, I did indeed expect Rudy! to be the candidate around which the inevitable “Law and Order” resentment vote would crystallize. I was wrong about that, sure. But only for reasons similar to those that made many observers wrong about Perry this time around (For the record, I wasn’t on the Perry train this time.) If I have one fault it’s one I share with a lot of observers in that I look too intently at previous years’ elections for an appropriate analog to the present one. In 2008, I was looking for Nixon and saw Rudy. This year, I think a lot of people were looking for W and saw Perry. Maybe I’m looking at the way the GOP eventually just gave up and settled on McCain last time around when I talk about Mitt but that’s not all I’m doing.

    I disagree with your characterization of my analysis as reflexive cynicism. What I’m mostly trying to express is exasperation with the false drama created during each election cycle as the info-tainment industry attempts to write a brand new ahistorical soap opera out of whole cloth where the present candidates and the policies or interest groups they might represent are de-contextualized from even their very recent past.

    The “process” then becomes a meaningless pretend time where we are forced by our scribes and heralds to consider questions to which we’ve long known the answers as though they’re completely new things under the sun. “What about this flat-tax, proposal? Has anyone ever considered such a thing?” they ask breathlessly. “Wow! Newt thinks children should be made to work as janitors! Why has no one tried this before?” It’s a stupid stupid TV show that any 12 year old should feel insulted to have been presented with.

    Sure we can think of the meaningless plot developments within this silly soap opera as dynamic “unscripted moments” but only in the same we expect such from so-called reality TV. A character does something outrageous or momentarily embarrassing. Very entertaining, but does it change anything? Probably not. On Jersey Shore they’re just holding your attention long enough to sell you an energy drink or a spray-on tan or something. In American Kabuki Politics, they’re just selling you more of the crap status quo money trust oligarchy you’re living under. (Or if John Boehner is involved, also spray-on tans)

    And the 2012 GOP Primary show is selling you Mitt Romney. Mitt is the guy the money trust most wants, he’s the product they’re trying to launch here. Everything else is just pretty crap to look at.

    I can’t accept Newt as the nominee for this reason. He can’t beat Obama in a one-on-one race. Now, a three of four way race with your Bloombergs and Roemers and such floating around there might be a different story. What I’m kind of hoping for, in fact, is a race where Buddy Roemer runs on the “Citizens Elect” ticket and puts Newt in but all the asshole mainstream Democrats blame Nader anyway.

  • Mark Moseley

    Thanks for the in-depth response, Jeffrey! I wrote another column on this topic which won’t be published until Monday, but I’ll preview it a little here.

    My criticism of your partial quote concentrated on the assumption about Romney. To the lay reader (assuming there are some) unfamiliar with our political discussions over the years, I should’ve emphasized that your main concern isn’t Mitt’s inevitability, but the ahistorical absurdity of the entire process… etc. I regret not making that distinction, because it might appear that I’m just picking on you, rather than nit-picking on you.

    So in my next column I respond to something Kathleen Parker wrote that is frighteningly similar to the quote I chopped out of your post. However, Parker’s words contain added implications that vexed me, and served as a better foil to my counter-argument.

    My post on Monday will lay out my political tarot cards for the GOP primary: I’ll reiterate that Mitt is profoundly “evitable.” I’ll note that establishment conservatives are panicked right now, b/c they understand that if Newt is nominated he’ll likely lose, so they’re trying to torpedo him before the primaries. Believe it or not, that may leave an opening for a Perry resurgence, the chances of which I rate as surprisingly likely (which does not mean I view them as actually probable).

    My larger point is that nothing is “inevitable” about political campaigns, and I’m mainly respond to Parker’s quote.

    As for your premise that the “money trust oligarchy” controls everything, I dispute the idea that they determine the results of the process. (For example, surely they preferred Mitt to McCain last time around.)

    And as for your reality-tv/political process comparison– nice one! I don’t agree with it, really, but I still like it.

    The fact is, when a political “character” does something “momentarily embarrassing” it can change a lot of things. Perry’s debate gaffes profoundly altered the race for President. It’s still fascinating to contemplate how royally he screwed himself, and all the money-players lining up behind him. We’ll never know all of the implications but, for one, it created space for the Cain farce (that WAS like a reality-tv show) and the current Newtmentum (which may, MAY unseat Mittens). How Perry’s flameout will effect the rest of the race remains to be seen, but– conceivably– 20 years worth of 5-4 Supreme Court decisions might hang in the balance, and I’d say that’s more consequential than an advert during Jersey Shore.

    That’s why I disagree with your assertion that your 08 error about Rudy!’s chances was similar to the “error” people made about Perry. It’s difficult to prove, of course, but I’d be happy to elaborate in convincing fashion that Rudy had, at most, a 3 percent chance of success whereas Perry had at least a 50 percent chance or greater. It’s why his debate gaffe (assuming it’s fatal to his campaign) was so consequential. Although it doesn’t appear so in hindsight, Perry really had something going, and mucked it up. Rudy basically never had anything going, at all, ever. Him receiving the nomination would’ve been a miracle akin to turning lead into gold.

    As for your 08 cautions to Obama cultists that they were setting themselves up for disappointment… why exactly were you concerned about quelling other people’s excitement over a candidate, anyway? I’m sure the excitement was annoying for others who might’ve preferred the stylings of Hillary or Johnny Mac or Tom Harkin (was he running?), but perhaps these cultists were like me, and despite them always being “disappointed” by the people they vote for, they still get a little excited during campaigns, despite themselves. And if they really were “cultists” why not just allow them to get disappointed by their leader, so they’ll be disabused of such enchantments next time around?

    Instead of withheld “I told you so’s” about that, I’d love to hear an example of a President who didn’t disappoint his supporters, and an example of the last “meaningful opposition campaign” (with a chance in hell of winning) that, in your view, genuinely merited voter excitement.

  • jeffrey

    Heh. One thought I had while going over this stuff was that it’s almost worth it to me this year knowing my health insurance premiums are going up again, that my social security is probably going to be pissed away and that I’ll never get that monorail to Disneyland I’ve always wanted because that means that all these people who voted for Obama expecting that would mean something different would happen now have to suffer for that too.

    (I said almost worth it.)

  • joejoejoe

    I’ll say this for Newt, he’s got the best dog whistle left in the fight. In a primary, where you only need to win a plurality of the plurality of voters who turn out, maybe the establishment doesn’t matter so much.

    Steven Benen @ Washington Monthly wrote, “Consider how desperately the Republican establishment wanted to defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in 2010. Did the party want Sharron Angle as the GOP nominee? Of course not, but the radical base didn’t much care. The establishment didn’t want Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, either, and was crushed when Mike Castle lost the primary, but there wasn’t much the party’s leaders could do about it.”

    Presidential elections are more moderate than off-year elections but I still think Benen is about right. The establishment matters but it is a thumb on the scale, not the whole roast.

    Note: I thought Huntsman had a shot. Prognosticatin’ ain’t easy!

  • Al

    My 2 dollars is still on Perry, with no last minute saver, hedge, or middling bet.

    And if your dissent is based on a disqualifing lack of brains, I really don’t have time to type up the list.

    I think Newt glows like a holy candle in a dim sanctuary, as long as he can sustain the attention of the pious, and shake out of them all the lucre his collection box can hold; then exits through the confessional before the curtains catch fire.

    And if I have another 2 dollars for the feature race, I know which tout sheet I’ll be reading along side my racing form: Wow – an accurate pick down to the last state and electoral vote count in the previous run for the roses, I doubt even Carville/Clinton had that doped out.

  • jeffrey

    Also I go back and forth over whether this sort of thing helps or hurts him. But Newt certainly is not afraid to say crazy things in public.