A political fiasco of historic proportions
Obama is ailing, yet the bunch of political misfits posing as Republican presidential candidates can’t make any mileage from that.
In the contest to see who will be the Republican Party nominee for president of the United States, Newt Gingrich upset Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primary at the weekend. Gingrich’s startling win overturned the conventional wisdom that Romney was on the verge of locking up the nomination.
Romney’s collapse was striking: he held a decent lead in polls the week before the vote, and ended up losing by 12 percentage points. What’s probably more worrying for the Romney camp than losing the state of South Carolina is the fact that his national ratings plummeted, too. Romney’s image was certainly damaged by poor debate performances last week and his response to certain issues, such as how much he pays in taxes.
Now the nomination seems much more up for grabs. If Romney loses the Florida primary on 31 January – and the first polls show he is trailing Gingrich – the party elite are likely to hit the panic button and search for a last-minute substitute to take on Gingrich, a man they see as deeply flawed. But even if Romney prevails, his troubles have revealed deeper fault lines in the party.
In the aftermath of South Carolina, the Romney-Gingrich face-off is being widely understood as a battle between the Republican Party’s establishment (who back Romney) and its insurgent base (who back Gingrich). There is some truth in this – the establishment’s disconnect with the party’s base is real. But all the talk about intra-party fighting understates the scale of the problem facing all Republicans. The nomination process has revealed that the Republican Party as a whole is facing a fiasco of historic proportions.
The presidential election in November should be the Republicans’ to lose. The US economy is mired in stagnation, and no president since FDR has been re-elected with unemployment as high as it is today (8.5 per cent). President Obama appears unable to do anything about the situation. He has done virtually nothing of substance regarding the economy since getting a stimulus package passed shortly after entering office. A majority of people disapprove of Obama’s performance and say the country is on the wrong track.
At the same time, since the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections, all the talk was about a re-energised Republican Party. Bolstered by the Tea Party activists, the Republicans were said to be on a path to roll over the Democrats in 2012.
But here we are in 2012, and just look at the state of the Republican candidates. It is hard to imagine a weaker field of political misfits.
Take Gingrich. The establishment is right to be panicked, given who Gingrich is: the former speaker of the house who had to resign after an ethics scandal; the lobbyist who received $1.6million from Freddie Mac, the mortgage agency at the centre of the housing collapse, plus another $37million from related activities; the moralist who is on his third wife; and the most well-known and disliked of all of the Republican candidates nationally (his 60 per cent disapproval rating is unheard of for a leading candidate).
Gingrich’s flaws may be obvious, but Romney is also inadequate. Before South Carolina, his credentials were presented as ‘perfect’: a business background (at a time when the economy needs repair); a professional organisation and endorsements; happily married (once) and, most of all, he looks the part. But the idea of Romney as the ‘perfect’ candidate is laughable. Lacking any strong proposals, Romney is an empty suit. He lacks passion for politics – at best, he comes across as a dull manager. Indeed, one reason for Gingrich upsetting the odds at the weekend is that at least he brings some passion.
For all of his supposed professionalism, Romney has an amateurish tendency to put his foot in his mouth, as when he recently said ‘I like to fire people’. Last week’s mini-storm over his unwillingness to release his tax returns sums him up. It was not the issue itself, but how badly he handled it. Romney responded like a deer in the headlights, acting totally surprised that someone would raise the subject. He blurted out his effective tax rate while on the campaign trail, and awkwardly hummed and hawed in response to questions in two debates. Romney lives a contradiction that makes him appear uncomfortable in his own skin: he hinges his campaign on his business background, and yet he is apologetic about his wealth. It is painful to watch him go out of his way to eat fast food, fly budget airlines and dress down.
Romney’s weaknesses are reflected in his inability to win over Republican voters. Indeed, the one consistency during the contest so far has been the desire to find another candidate, indeed, anyone but Romney. Hence the cast of eccentrics that have come and gone: Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry. The atmosphere has been circus-like (even by American standards): just in the past week, you had a former wife accusing Gingrich of wanting an open marriage, a reverse of the Iowa results and a slew of personal attacks.
But it’s not just about Romney. Whether Romney recovers, or the party finds another standard-bearer, this nomination process has revealed fundamental problems with the Republican Party itself.
For a start, it is worth pointing out how weak support for Republicans is, a fact that doesn’t get much attention. According to Gallup, only 27 per cent of Americans identify with the Republican Party. Democrats do not fare much better: 31 per cent support them. The real ‘insurgent’ force in American politics is none-of-the-above, otherwise classified as ‘independent’: 41 per cent of Americans now say they are unaffiliated with a party. When you hear all the hyped-up noise about the Republican primaries, just remember that fewer than a quarter of the voting population is involved.
The Republican Party no longer operates like a traditional political party. There are few organic ties linking politicians with activists and communities. Campaigns today are ‘media-led’, focusing on TV adverts rather than ground troops. Even the politicians themselves are not well connected. The candidates for president are lone individuals, not products of political machines. We know that the American political system is not like a parliamentary one, but still, today’s candidates have virtually no connection with elected politicians. Three of the four candidates who are left standing – Gingrich, Romney and Santorum – are not currently employed in an elected office. They are failed politicians, trounced in defeat (or, in Gingrich’s case, run out office by colleagues), who just decided they had enough money and ego to take a shot at the presidency.
Most importantly, the Republican Party really doesn’t know what it stands for today. For example, the ascendant Gingrich makes a joke of the party’s claims to be against big government (he was the ultimate insider as speaker of the house and lobbyist) and for family values (he’s not only had several wives, but he dumped his first while she was in the hospital with cancer).
The party’s ideological confusion was revealed by a remarkable attack – led by Gingrich and echoed by other contenders – on Romney for his investment and restructuring activities while at Bain Capital. The party elders must have choked on their cornflakes when they read about Republicans criticising fellow party members for making a profit and earning money.
There was a logic of sorts to Gingrich’s line of attack. The largest segment of the Republican Party is now the white working class without college education (indeed, that section of the working class is far more allied to the Republicans than the Democrats, despite the Democrats’ pretensions that they represent the common man). Gingrich’s attack on Romney’s work at Bain was an attempt by Gingrich to adopt a populist and anti-elitist stance, in the hope of appealing to that group. But it was a transparently opportunistic ploy that doesn’t really address workers’ concerns about the economy. Moreover, it raises a more fundamental issue about the party’s lack of coherence. One minute Gingrich is telling the Occupy protesters that they need to take a bath; the next he steals Occupy’s arguments and uses them against Romney. Confused or what.
Of course, it remains possible that the Republicans could take the White House come November. The electorate at large remains undecided, unimpressed with both Obama and his would-be Republican challengers. But the process of picking a Republican candidate has shown that the party is a pale imitation of its former self, and it is in big trouble. If the party can’t find a decent candidate in today’s conditions, what hope do they have?
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.