Romney in the driving seat going into Florida, with Gingrich playing the rabid dog in the back seat

Oh, how far we’ve come. It’s not quite e pluribus unum, but in the three nominating contests that have taken place so far (the Iowa Caucus, the New Hampshire Primary and the South Carolina Primary), a field which numbered seven serious candidates just one month ago has now been whittled down to just four: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. In that month, we’ve lost three beloved contenders – Rick Perry, who couldn’t remember how many departments he wanted to abolish and who spent millions only to drop out before South Carolina having only won four delegates; Jon Huntsman, a decent guy but whose political sense was so poor that he thought serving under the incumbent democratic president would be a plus in the GOP primary; and Michele Bachmann, who believed that vaccination was a communist plot to steal our freedom.

Mitt Romney was supposed to win this one easily. Against a host of candidates with far less money, little institutional support and no presidential aura, the perfectly coiffed Bain executive and former Massachusetts governor expected to walk it.

That nearly happened. Romney narrowly won Iowa against ultraconservative Rick Santorum, and then grabbed a resounding victory in New Hampshire. And then Gingrich’s superior debating skills and pitch-perfect populist rhetoric turned things around – and South Carolina swung massively to Gingrich, who won the contest there by over ten points.

But Gingrich’s lead was not to last. Going into the crucial winner-takes-all Florida republican primary, Mitt Romney knew that despite damaging revelations that he paid less that 14% in taxes, Gingrich was an extremely weak and flawed candidate. Between serious ethics charges that forced him to resign as Speaker of the House, charges of ‘erratic’ behaviour and rather eccentric ideas like building a base on the moon, Gingrich’s weaknesses were put on full display by Romney and countless establishment surrogates – with the inevitable resulting drop in the polls. Romney now looks certain to win the Florida GOP primary:

Yet despite the almost inevitable loss in tonight’s primary, it would be foolish to think that this contest is anywhere near over. Gingrich may be wounded. He may have far less money, far less moderate appeal, and a far more negative image nationwide. But not only is he a fighter – he also knows that the republican base continues to have serious doubts about Romney’s conservative bona fides and general trustworthiness. Consider this:

Despite an opposition that any half-way decent candidate would dream of, Romney has only recently broken into the 30s in nationwide polling among republicans. Meanwhile, unless Rick Santorum can make a serious comeback, Gingrich is the only anti-Romney candidate left whose name isn’t Ron Paul – and Ron Paul’s opposition to militarism and support of legalising marijuana mean that he’s in the wrong party and will never get the nomination. Gingrich knows that if he can remain viable up until Super Tuesday – 6 March, when 10 states go to vote – and if he can crystallise anti-Romney support around him, he can make this a very long and bloody race.

I  don’t honestly think that Gingrich will ultimately prevail. I think that he’s too flawed a candidate to beat someone with as much money and as perfect a campaign organisation as Romney. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if Gingrich were to keep this fight going for months. And despite what my friend Thibault Muzergues would say – that long primary contests like the Hillary-Obama slugfest actually help organise and galvanise a party – I think this’ll be a nasty one that won’t make anyone look good. And from my personal ideological point of view, that’s a wonderful thing – plus, it’ll make for great TV.

 Oh, and yes, I realise that I’m contradicting what I said a month ago about this being a short contest and Romney pulverising his opposition. I’m wrong sometimes. But I don’t think I fully understood then the resilience of Newt Gingrich. He resurrected his campaign once already. He can do it again, and again, and again…


Romney: nominee by default?

I’ve written before about how weak and divided the republican presidential field is at the moment. It seems, however, that there’s a new media narrative going around at the moment: that most of the heavyweights will stay out of the race, leaving the 2012 primary battle to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich… and a handful of people that analysts agree are no-hopers, like Ambassador to China and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee looks more and more likely to stay out of the race. Sarah Palin (who needs no introduction)? Who knows, but it increasingly seems like the establishment and the right-wing press have turned against her, meaning that while she could do well in primaries, she would probably have little chance of winning the nomination. We may also have another far-right candidate like Reps. Michele Bachmann and/or Steve King, but neither of those two individuals will come anywhere close to being the republican nominee. Oh, and then there’s Donald Trump, who’s about as likely to become president as I am.

With that in mind, Mitt Romney is the clear frontrunner, with the most establishment support, the best organisation and the most money. But could he win, bearing in mind his moderate record as governor and his frankly rather liberal positions back in the 1990s? I’m not just talking about his passing healthcare reform (‘Romneycare’) in Massachusetts – I’m also talking about his past support for abortion and gay rights when he ran for the Senate in 1994 against Ted Kennedy, best illustrated by this wonderful video:

Conventional wisdom would suggest that all of the anti-Romney forces would eventually coalesce around a candidate to the right of the former Massachusetts governor, who would go on to win the nomination. That could very well be Tim Pawlenty, who has low visibility at the moment but lots of money, a promising campaign staff, and a lot of goodwill from the establishment – Pawlenty talks like a moderate, but is actually quite conservative on both economic and social issues, and is an evangelical Christian. It could also be Newt Gingrich, who’s said some very repulsive things about the current president, Muslims and other people and groups in recent months.

At the same time, though, consider 2008. John McCain was seen as the ‘moderate’ candidate who could not be trusted by the right. Yet he still managed to trounce more conservative opponents in ’08, and win the nomination surprisingly early. And Romney has been even more deft than John McCain in flip-flopping on past statements and talking like a true red-blooded conservative – perhaps best illustrated by the title of his 2010 book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness“. While there’s still time for someone more authentically conservative, with enough establishment support and money to have a serious shot at the nomination, yet without the total lack of charisma from which Tim Pawlenty suffers, to enter the race, Ross Douthat argues in the New York Times that this might just be one of those elections where the best candidates decide not to take the plunge, and the GOP ends up with a lacklustre nominee:

…sometimes the “person who can win” decides not to run, and you’re left to choose between people who can’t. The last time the Republicans made big gains in the mid-term elections [1994] and then faced a vulnerable-but-formidable Democratic incumbent two years later, they found themselves choosing between Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchanan in the primaries, while figures like Colin Powell and Dick Cheney (now there would have been a primary campaign!) stayed on the sidelines. It could happen again: Just because the Republicans seem to need a better candidate than Mitt Romney doesn’t mean they’ll get one.

I think that’s right. And while I still have trouble seeing how republicans could possibly nominate Mitt Romney, I have even more trouble imagining any of the other probable candidates winning their party’s nomination. So, right now, it’s Romney – unless Mike Huckabee proves the pundits wrong and decides to actually run.

Another Bush in the White House: Jeb in 2012?

The Republican Party hasn’t had a winning ticket without a Bush on it since 1972. And, according to Rich Lowry of the National Review, the GOP’s best chance in 2012 may be to nominate another member of that particular political dynasty:

Obama is slightly below 50 percent in the polls, with a real weakness in the middle of the country, and he’s saddled with a recovery that has yet to produce substantial job growth. Yet there is no true frontrunner in the race to challenge him. It’s hard to imagine an environment better suited for a heavyweight like Jeb to make a run… two years of Obama have taken the edge off W.-hatred, and he’s risen from the depths of his unpopularity near the end of his presidency. Gallup had a poll in December that had Bush’s approval rating very slightly above President Obama’s… [t]he controversies that made the Bush years so venomous have faded, and — partly through the miracle of the accelerated news cycle — 2000–2008 already feels somewhat distant.

Jeb probably has a better chance to unite the establishment and Tea Party wings of the GOP than anyone else, certainly a better chance than Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney would seem to have at this juncture. The establishment would presumably flock to Jeb, while he’d have a record of solid conservative accomplishment to sell to the conservative base… he would stand a good chance of avoiding a damaging division in the party.

At first glance, this seems like nonsense – surely, just a couple of years after George W. Bush’s departure from the White House, the country could not possibly want to hire his brother as commander-in-chief. After all, people still remember Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, Katrina, water-boarding, the financial meltdown and all of the other disasters of W’s eight years in office… right?

Wrong, apparently. I personally severely overestimated Americans’ attention spans. While I have a great love for my countrymen and countrywomen, one thing that they are not good at is remembering events from even a year or two ago. And it seems like people are already well on their way to forgetting everything bad they used to think of George Bush Jr., and remembering him as a sort of decent, quirky, fun-loving uncle they don’t see much any more but wish they did. Just two months ago, the current president’s approval rating dropped beneath that of his predecessor, who has had a truly remarkable political recovery. Though President Obama’s polling numbers have now risen, Bush’s remain high.

In that kind of climate, where the Bush name is no longer a negative factor, Jeb becomes a serious candidate. He was the governor of a major swing state with a substantial Latino population. In fact, he speaks fluent Spanish, and his wife is originally from Mexico. That’s the Latino vote right there. While his education record is now more disputed than it once was, he’s still seen as a forward thinker on school reform. That gets you suburban families. Yet his involvement in conservative hot-button causes like the Terri Schiavo case, and his skepticism of man-made global warming, makes him attractive to the republican base. He’s the kind of candidate who could win votes in the middle and on the right.

And honestly, compared to any of the so-called front-runners, Jeb Bush is a formidable candidate. He hasn’t flip-flopped on abortion, like Mitt Romney. He’s not as polarising as Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee. And he’s got the family’s connections to donors that would mean he could instantly raise millions. If he could get past his family name, he could have a serious shot in 2012. I still don’t think he’ll run – he’s shown no interest in the presidential race this time around, though there’s an outside chance he’ll be a candidate for Bill Nelson’s Senate seat, which would be a good base from which to run in 2016 – but if he did, you certainly couldn’t rule him out.

Michele Bachmann to South Carolina: insane lady one step closer to a presidential run

It seems that every single loon is coming out of the woodwork. After a trip to Iowa, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), legitimate crazy person, is taking a trip to another early primary state, South Carolina, fuelling yet more speculation about a 2012 bid:

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, will travel to the early primary state of South Carolina later this month as she mulls a possible White House bid in 2012, CNN has learned…

“She is obviously exploring her options and seeing what’s out there,” [Spartanburg County Republican Party Chairwoman LaDonna Ryggs] Ryggs told CNN.

It will be Bachmann’s second trip to a key presidential nominating state this year. In January, she traveled to Iowa to headline an Iowans For Tax Relief event and met with top GOP officials in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

You may laugh when I suggest that Michele Bachmann is a nut. But she is – far worse than Sarah Palin, whom I regard more as a cynical purveyor of ready-made conservative soundbites. Witness some of her best quotes:

“I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out under another, then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. I’m not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.”

“I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America?”

“Take this into consideration. If we look at American history, between 1942 and 1947, the data that was collected by the Census Bureau was handed over to the FBI and other organizations at the request of President Roosevelt, and that’s how the Japanese were rounded up and put into the internment camps. I’m not saying that that’s what the Administration is planning to do, but I am saying that private personal information that was given to the Census Bureau in the 1940s was used against Americans to round them up, in a violation of their constitutional rights, and put the Japanese in internment camps.”

She’s a paranoid fruitloop. Basically, she’s a male Steven Colbert, if Colbert weren’t a joke. I’m surprised she’s not also scared of how bears are destroying America. And while it’d be fun to watch her run – and even more fun if both she and Sarah Palin ran – it’d force everyone else at the republican debates to act just a little more crazy than they otherwise would, so as not to appear too moderate.

It’d be good TV, though. Did anyone watch her rebuttal of President Obama’s State of the Union speech? If not, here it is:

19-year-old Iowan with gay parents makes the case for marriage equality

Zach Wahls, a 19-year-old student from the University of Iowa, speaks before the Iowa House of Representatives about growing up with two mothers – and how the sexual orientation of his parents made not one bit of a difference to the way he and his sister turned out as adults. Worth watching:

Prize quote:

“Actually, I was raised by a gay couple and I’m doing pretty well… My family isn’t so different from yours. After all, your family doesn’t derive its sense of worth from being told by the state: ‘You’re married, congratulations!’ No. The sense of family comes from the commitment we make to each other — to work through the hard times so we can enjoy the good ones. It comes from the love that binds us. That’s what makes a family. So what you’re voting on is not going to change us.”

Same-sex marriage became legal in Iowa in 2009 after a state Supreme Court decision. When the republicans took back the lower house of the state legislature in November of 2010, they introduced a bill that would place a ban on gay marriage in the state constitution. The bill passed the state house, but democrats in the state senate have vowed to block its passage.

Five states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire), plus the District of Columbia, have full marriage equality at present. Five more states (California, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, and Rhode Island) recognise gay marriages performed in other jurisdictions, but do not themselves allow such unions.

(hat tip: Scott Hall, for originally posting this on Facebook)

Mike Huckabee thinks Israel should have all of the West Bank and Palestinians should leave

Mike Huckabee giving a speech following the South Carolina 2008 Presidential Primary in Columbia, South Carolina

It’s generally taken for granted that American politicians will be far more pro-Israeli and far less pro-Palestinian than their European counterparts. This latest statement from former Arkansas Governor and 2008 republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, however, goes further than most:

Potential 2012 U.S. presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said Tuesday that if Palestinians want an independent state, they should seek it from Arabs – not Israel.

The evangelical minister and Fox News host said Jews should be allowed to settle anywhere throughout the biblical Land of Israel – an area that includes the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

He called the demand on Israel to give up land for peace an “unrealistic, unworkable and unreachable goal.”

Most of the international community – including President Barack Obama – considers Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem illegal because they are built on occupied land Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim both areas for a future state.

Huckabee suggested that a Palestinian state were to be established, it shouldn’t come at Israel’s expense.

“There are vast amounts of territory that are in the hands of Muslims, in the hands of Arabs. Maybe the international community can come together and accommodate,” he said in a meeting with reporters.

This isn’t actually new from Huckabee. He’s made this kind of statement before, and it sort of comes with the territory of being a religious nut. What is more, I’m sure that other potential 2012 candidates, such as Sarah Palin, privately probably wouldn’t disagree. What it does show, though, is the complete and utter divorce from reality that the American right has undergone in the past few years when it comes to the Middle East. Where President George W. Bush actually got quite far with his roadmap, before it ground to a halt with the 2006 Palestinian elections and the victory of Hamas, these days one couldn’t expect anything less from a republican than 100% allegiance to the positions of Binyamin Netanyahu’s hard-line far-right government.

This ideological shift to the right on Israel has forced the democrats to become more staunchly pro-Israeli, too – to the point where speaking to any pro-Palestinian groups is a serious political liability, even in a democratic primary (just google ‘Joe Sestak’ and ‘CAIR’ and see what comes up). As a result, America is increasingly blind to the continuing plight of the almost four million people living in the occupied territories, and Israel is freer and freer to forget past promises of working towards a two-state solution – as Netanyahu started to do as early as 2009 with his Bar Ilan speech.

N.B.: For clarity’s sake, I don’t believe for a second that there’s some kind of Jewish lobby or conspiracy behind this. Far from it. One thing of note when looking at the republicans is that despite their tougher and tougher line on Israel, their share of the Jewish vote has remained tiny – and they only have one Jewish congressman (Eric Cantor) and no Jewish senators. I do believe that AIPAC, which represents a tiny fringe of America’s Jewish population, has a pernicious influence on the foreign policy debate – but that ultimately, the current Israel-Palestine paradigm is more to do with public opinion equating ‘tough on security’ with ‘pro-Israeli no matter what Israel does’.

Conservatives plan challenge to Scott Brown: Republicans continue to eat their own

This is perhaps the dumbest idea I’ve heard in a while:

A Republican organization that backed Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) with independent expenditures and fundraising assistance says it will work to defeat Brown in a Republican primary next year in order to protect the party’s brand.

Scott Wheeler, who heads the National Republican Trust PAC, said the group never expected Brown to toe a consistently conservative line, given his home state. But Brown’s vote for the New START Treaty with Russia in late 2010 was a bridge too far, Wheeler said.

“We believe the Democrats’ policies are destroying the country. Why let them take a Republican vote with them? If we’re not going to have at least a symbolic vote against some of this garbage, then let’s make the Democrats take the blame for it. It’s their policies,” Wheeler said in a Friday interview. “I say, no more Republican hostages.”

Scott Brown is the most popular politician in Massachusetts – no mean feat for a republican from a very democratic state, one that gave Barack Obama over 60% of the vote in 2008 and whose state house is more than 80% democratic. He’s done that by breaking with his party on numerous occasions, such as on the START treaty and on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But he’s also got a 100% rating from the Citizens for Limited Taxation and Government, and an A+ rating from the Gun Owners’ Action League. That’s pretty damn good for a Massachusetts republican – and it’s about the best you can get in a state that reliably democratic.

It seems that the republican base has learnt nothing from the 2010 elections which, while a big GOP win, could have been better had it not been for Tea Party primary victories in places like Delaware and Nevada. Already, there is talk of primary challenges to Olympia Snowe in Maine, Dick Lugar in Indiana and Orrin Hatch in Utah. Now, granted, even the most insanely conservative republican could win in Utah – but Maine and Indiana were both carried by Barack Obama in 2008, and a Tea Party candidate would run a serious risk of losing otherwise remarkably solid GOP seats in either of those states. That goes double for Massachusetts, where pretty much anyone except Scott Brown will undoubtedly lose by more than 20 points.

As a partisan democrat with a shameful love for dirty politics, I’m revelling in this. I’m hoping for a Sarah Palin-Michele Bachmann ticket in the presidential election, and as many Tea Partiers as possible in House and Senate races. As an American citizen, however, the fact that even Orrin Hatch and Dick Lugar – for decades considered as extremely reliable conservatives – are no longer rabid enough partisans for the GOP base. And while I wouldn’t hesitate to vote a straight democratic line if I lived in MA, I actually like that there’s someone like Scott Brown in an increasingly polarised Senate – someone who truly has to weigh up conservative principles with political pragmatism. It’d be sad to see someone like him defeated by a fire-breathing Sarah Palin fan.