I write the following memo mainly as a political scientist and observer of the present Republican Presidential primaries. As a citizen I have my preferences, as a political scientist I seek to analyze the phenomena that show up. Indeed, even as I write this
memo, I must suspend my personal feelings for one of the leading candidates, who has much to admire, and much to offer our country. Now is the time for analysis, not emotion-based preferences.
Three Presidential candidates have won the first three primaries: Senator Santorum carried Iowa by a few votes, Mitt Romney swept New Hampshire, and Newt Gingrich swept South Carolina. On 31 January the first large state holds its winner-take-all primary: Florida. From being sharply ahead in Florida several days ago, a week ago, polls reported that Gingrich opened a sizable lead; but most recent polls show Romney racing towards a victory in Florida. The wheel of Fortune keeps turning--quickly.
What served Gingrich so well in South Carolina--moving him from a distant second in the polls to a distant first place victory in the election--was largely the performance of Gingrich and Romney in the two debates immediately before the voting on 21 January. In both the Monday and Thursday debates, Romney showed himself to be unsure, flustered, unable effectively to handle questions about his work at Bain Capital and his seeming reluctance to release his tax returns. Romney waffled, and lost the appearance of looking “Presidential.” In the same two debates, Gingrich was combative, focused, a fountain of clever one-liners, and effectively played to the crowds by moving attention from his own moral failures to the media. Gingrich showed himself to be a force in debate that perhaps no one on the present American political scene can match. (Note: Obama looked fairly good in debate compared to McCain in 2008, but McCain’s performance was surprisingly weak, given his background and experience. Obama’s talent has been more in making some long and captivating speeches than in debate or handling himself in live questioning.)
But then to my surprise, a renewed Mitt appeared in the two Florida debates this past week: he was much more decisive, more aggressive towards Gingrich, and visibly stunned Gingrich with his clever come-back on the issue of owning stock in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: “Have you seen your own portfolio? You also own stock in Fannie and Freddie.” “Bust,” as kids would say. Even if Santorum won the second debate, as commentators from CNN agreed, Romney effectively body-slammed the bloated Gingrich.
What I write now to the Republican Party and its Presidential candidates is “silent” because it will have no effect in the political world. Still, some analysis seems worth the effort, even as the world of campaign politicking changes so quickly.
If Gingrich wins in Florida, it is difficult to imagine how Romney could win the nomination, especially given Gingrich’s much greater strength in the southern states. And the Republican Party is now solidly grounded in the South and Southwest. States in which Romney could handily defeat Gingrich--such as New York or Michigan or New Jersey--have not voted for a Republican presidential candidate in recent years. They are, indeed, strongholds of the Democratic Party. If Romney cannot inspire sizable proportions of voters in Southern and border states, how could he possibly be electable as President? And if Gingrich can appeal only to Southerners or perhaps voters in some mountain states--or “Tea Party” folks--how could he avoid going down to a solid defeat at the re-election of Barrack Obama? If Romney wins in Florida, Gingrich would still have a solid base in the Southern states, and the blood bath would continue. But then again, Romney would have regained his lost momentum, and won an important victory over his heretofore main opponent--the one Romney’s team foolishly considered road kill after Gingrich’s very poor showing in Iowa and New Hampshire. Despite efforts to slice him to pieces, “Chucky” lives.
As some commentators have begun to argue, the Republicans may be on the road to a “brokered convention.” As I see it, the two leading candidates each has major weaknesses, which would almost guarantee Obama’s re-election. Having spent nearly forty years in the Washington establishment, it sounds absurd for Gingrich to keep speaking about “Washington insiders.” If Gingrich is not a “Washington insider,” who is? And many voters are “fed up with Washington,” and have a visceral repulsion to Washington insiders. Newt may dance verbally, but his past will catch up with him sooner or later; he is too old and too slow to outrun the shadow of his past. And sooner or later, the two sides of Newt so evident when he became Speaker of the House in January, 1995, will re-appear: on the one hand, a professor who could give a highly intelligent and knowledgeable speech on American politics and the Constitution as his inaugural speech as Speaker; and then, a few months later, the same erudite politician could show himself to be a horse’s backside by whining about not being given a first-class seat on an airplane. Gingrich has for years been his own worst enemy, and that reality will re-appear sooner or later.
As for Romney, his timing for a Presidential run could not be more problematic. In a time when many American citizens across the political spectrum are suspicious and distrustful of “Wall Street” and “the wealthy” (and especially the two together), Romney presents himself to voters, and he is more of a “Mr. Wall Street” than any candidate for President I can recall in the past fifty years or more. And even as Romney seeks to sell himself for his background in business (in Bain Capital), a large number of Americans--from left and right--do not trust “big business” and what it has done, or is purported to have done--to our culture. Although Romney appears to have a good and stable character, he evidently has a kind of boarding school difficulty connecting emotionally with many Americans; for evidently, by background, experience, and character traits, Romney is not “a man of the people,” but clearly “a man of privilege.” How can a candidate who has an enormous net worth and pays a much lower rate of income tax than most hard-working Americans be able to “feel your pain” in any believable way? By all appearance and by what I have read, Romney is a good man, but as a “money Republican,” he cannot relate to the millions of Americans who worry about losing their jobs, or not having a pension, or the loss of Social Security, or simply not being able to retire at a reasonable age for lack of funds. In a word, Romney is a good man at the wrong time. And that fact has been coming to light. Unless he can learn quickly to relate to “ordinary folks,” and unless he finds a way to minimize his wealth in a political climate hostile to wealthy Republican-plutocrats, he would go down to defeat at the hands of the more populist Obama.
Hence, It increasingly becomes evident to me, as a political scientist watching Gingrich and Romney, that despite their splashy bloodbath, neither man as he appears now is electable as President. Neither the bloated Mr. Washington (Newt) nor the rich Mr. Wall Street (Mitt) could stand up to the forces aligned to guarantee Obama’s re-election. Obama is not bloated, but sleek and smooth; and although a wealthy man (and surely one of the “top 1%” himself, as are Romney and Gingrich), Obama’s racial identity and populist, anti-wealth rhetoric helps voters overlook or choose to ignore his wealth and power. Obama is a wealthy man, but that reality is plainly eclipsed by his likable, athletic, smooth persona. And although not politically correct to say so, I add: Just as it is a bad time for a politician to be part of the Washington Establishment or a “Wall Street bankster,” it is a very good time to be “a minority.” And in politics, timing is everything.
What might the Republicans do? Just let the blood bath continue, and go down to defeat in November? Senator Santorum and Representative Ron Paul are not electable, either. One is another young man who has legislative experience rather than executive experience, and the other is a consistent, devout libertarian who appeals mainly to the young and inexperienced. Ron Paul is entertaining, but quite simplistic and even naive.
Unless Romney could disavow Wall Street and pull a St. Francis--giving away all of his wealth--and learn to think, to feel, to experience as a human being without vast material resources, he should realize that we are not in the “Roaring Twenties,” when wealth was so idolized, but in a time of wide scale economic and social suffering: hence, Romney’s days as a political leader are most likely behind him. Unless Gingrich were to be transformed from a self-important Power Broker used to pulling the strings of others, into a saintly servant of the suffering, his political days are also past. Unless something unforeseen happens to transform caterpillars into butterflies, I say to Romney, and especially to Gingrich: Exit, stage right.
Again I ask, what are Republicans to do? Or what should the hidden elite in the Republican Party do, to keep its Presidential candidates from slicing up each other just for a nearly inevitable defeat to Obama? But then again, if Romney were to have a string of victories beginning in Florida, and if he handily and effectively defeated and silenced Gingrich’s mouth, perhaps he could recover and effectively transform himself from a plutocrat with an aristocratic character into a Democratic- Republican voice for “liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever,” and for a more perceivably just and equitable distribution of goods and services, even while reducing the size, scope, and expense of the federal government. A huge task indeed, but not wholly impossible with the right handlers and a genuine renewal in Mitt Romney.
In truth the best men and women in the Republican Party, of whom I am aware, do not want to run for President. And that is what one would expect, because in a country such as ours, the most noble and most talented human beings are not drawn into politics--something which political scientists have observed since de Tocqueville and Bagehot in the 19th century. (Indeed, according to Bagehot, America’s best talent has long been drawn into business, not politics--partly for wealth, but more essentially for the greater freedom to use their talents.) Political office, especially at the highest levels, appeals to men and women with highly bloated self-conceptions and obsessions for power--perhaps masked in a desire and promise to “transform the world,” using Obama’s phrase from 2008. This phrase, with which Obama concluded his famous speech at the Jefferson and Jackson dinner in Des Moines early in his Presidential campaign, was first articulated by Karl Marx in his well-known 11th aphorism from the Theses on Feuerbach of 1845: “Philosophers of old only sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” (Perhaps ironically, this very well known teaching of Marx serves as the epitaph on his grave in London. But apparently the error did not die with its originator.)
The best one can hope for, perhaps--if Romney cannot transform himself quickly from plutocrat to a man-of-the-people, is the virtually impossible: that at a dead-locked convention, Republicans would turn to two qualified, talented, virtuous, intelligent men or women to form their ticket. Two names come readily to mind: Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Characteristically, Daniels and Rice have said that they do not wish to seek higher office: Daniels because his wife does not want him to run for President, and Rice because she has repeated her desire to remain out of public life.
Perhaps the more sadly realistic and possible outcome is that two probably unelectable Republican candidates will continue to slice one another into pieces, and then not waste resources on either Romney or Gingrich going up against Obama. Rather, spend the money to help Republicans hold on to control of the House of Representatives and to regain a majority in the Senate.