Europe, Labour and the next general election: Labour International Paris debates

Cross-posted from LIP’s website (original blog post here)

Our latest general meeting (5 February 2014) saw our first ever formal debate, which will take place bi-monthly. The purpose of the debates is to explore key issues to the movement while encouraging members to explore alternative perspectives and ideas. Two volunteers spoke on alternative sides, tasked not necessarily to express their own opinion but rather to present a coherent argument for or against the motion. This then facilitated the debate amongst the group so that all members (including the original speakers) could discuss their own perspectives and as a group we could decide how this would guide our future policy.   Writing for the first time for Labour International Paris, Evan O’Connell sums up the debate and gives his thoughts on the conclusions drawn.

The ability to live, work and travel without constraints anywhere in Europe is a freedom that most Britons are only technically aware of, but that ex-pats live with every day. It is not a surprise, therefore, that being mostly ex-pats or friends and colleagues of ex-pats, most members of Labour International Paris (LIP) are reasonably pro-European.

Yet Parisian Labourites are but a small fraction of the Party and the movement as a whole – and not necessarily representative of where the country is on European integration. With that in mind, LIP recently organised its latest debate on how Labour should position itself on the EU in the upcoming European elections in 2014 and the subsequent general election in 2015.

Arguing for the motion “The Labour Party should promote greater engagement with Europe”, Ben Rickey focused on changing the narrative around Europe. He described a successful experiment that brought a peace and prosperity continent once divided by war and that continues to provide benefits to its citizens even today, whether in terms of environmental legislation, harmonised rules on telecoms or workers’ rights.

At the same time, in acknowledging that Europe faces significant challenges today, Rickey pleaded for a strong Britain in a strong Europe, underlining that “Europe needs reform, and reform can only be achieved by effective engagement.” Economic reforms that would bring growth and dynamism back to the EU’s economy could only come to pass if the UK fully participated in the decisions that would shape Europe’s future.

Furthermore, Rickey argued that Labour’s often timid line on Europe has allowed eurosceptics to define the terms of the debate and allow misconceptions and falsehoods to become commonly accepted by the British population. It was Labour’s duty to counter these lies and mistruths. In so doing, and in turning the tables on Europe, Labour could usher in a new era of pro-European politics in the UK.

Dave Parry, meanwhile, shifted the focus of the question from what was right for Britain in the long term to what Labour should do in 2015. Citing Gaitskell and Callaghan, Parry underlined that there was a long-standing Labour Eurosceptic movement and that expressing doubts about the benefits of European integration was certainly not new territory for Labour.

Underlining that “the debate this evening is not about the merits of the EU: it’s about how Labour wins the next election”, Parry pointed out that the Conservatives would undoubtedly focus on Europe and the referendum pledge: “If Ed wants to show how he is different by promoting his own judgment, he should not promote greater engagement with Europe. He needs to stand up to the perceived view that a Labour leader is a ‘blind follower of the EU gravy train’.”

Reminding attendees of Tony Blair’s ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ speech, Parry pleaded for a ‘tough love’ discourse acknowledging the criticisms by many that “[T]he EU is too expensive, bureaucratic, and not fit for purpose in its present state” and arguing that Britain needs to have greater control on access to its labour market. Suggesting openness to a referendum on EU membership, he argued, would help win support with non-Labour voters and help Ed into no. 10.

While attendees generally agreed more with the sentiments expressed by Ben Rickey in favour of a pro-EU line, there was sympathy for Dave Parry’s argument that an EU-critical position might be more electorally sound. While some suggested that Labour would in any case be perceived as pro-EU and should be proud of its position, others felt that there was little upside in being perceived as out of touch with the views of a majority of Britons who seem to support loosening ties with the continent.

A hope for a change in UK political discourse in the long term was generally shared by most, however – and as suggested by both Ben Rickey and Flora Bolter, LIP activists and sympathisers committed themselves to knocking on doors as part of the PES grassroots “#KnockTheVote” initiative. All agreed that LIP should continue building ties with the PES Paris CityGroup (FacebookTwitter) and with the local Paris “Fédération” of the French Socialist Party.

Evan O’Connell


Claude Guéant and France’s continuing slide to the far right under Nicolas Sarkozy

“All civilisations, all practices, all cultures, in light of our republican principles, are not equal.” – Claude Guéant, French Interior Minister, 4 January 2012

Coming from a fervent defender of tolerance, openness, women’s rights, gay rights and the like, there’s nothing wrong with the statement that certain cultural values found in Western society are superior to intolerant views held elsewhere. It’s something I’d certainly agree with – while I’m no Huntingtonite neocon, I’m certainly not a believer in cultural relativism, and do think that European society has it right on most of the key cultural issues that concern people’s daily lives.

Coming from Claude Guéant, however, such a statement is nothing but dogwhistle politics, designed to attract xenophobic support from the far right for the extremely shaky reelection bid of incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

It’s not the first example of Guéant’s attempts to play on the hatred of foreigners – and especially Muslims – that festers in the hearts of so many French citizens. Guéant is an expert in such divisive politics – and Nicolas Sarkozy’s right hand man when it comes to law and order, immigration and a whole host of other topics, not to mention his main emissary to the far right electorate.

It was Guéant who said in May 2011 that “Contrary to popular myth, it is untrue that we need the talents and skills that immigrants possess.” It was he, also, who said that same year that France only wanted “nice” immigrants. But above all, he brought in strict new rules on work permits for young foreign graduates – the famous “Guéant circular” about which I’ve written a couple posts – that made it near impossible for non-European students to stay in France after graduation.

As Françoise Fressoz of Le Monde pointed out on her blog today, a new IFOP-Journal du Dimanche poll showed incumbent right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and left-wing challenger François Hollande neck-and-neck at 33% in a hypothetical election where far right candidate Marine Le Pen fails to qualify for the presidential ballot (not at all impossible). What this has reaffirmed for the French right is that the solution to its problems is to continue to appeal to the xenophobes on the right in the hopes of mobilising and galvanising its electorate and beating extremely low expectations in the April/May presidential election.

This is why, says Fressoz:

Guéant has attacked the left for ‘not participating in the vote on banning the wearing of full veils’ and in recounting a left-wing politician’s ‘assurances that ‘street prayers do not bother anyone’…

The offensive is clearly directed against Islam. It has a dual objective: flirting with Le Pen’s electorate while Marine Le Pen is weakened by her uncertain quest to qualify for the ballot [in France, 500 signatures from local elected officials are required to qualify for the presidential election] and destabilising the Socialist Party whose leader, François Hollande, took up the theme of the “Republic” at his 22 January speech at Le Bourget… in Claude Guéant’s eyes, socialists do not know how to defend secularism.

And, says Fressoz, it will only worsen in the coming weeks and months as the presidential race identifies. But more than mere electoral politics, the French centre right has been eclipsed by a more strident, less politically correct ‘new right’ – echoing both Thatcher and Berlusconi, Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP no longer cares about political niceties and consensus politics. It’s learnt from its European neighbours that appeals to people’s worst instincts generally pay in politics. That’s why it’d be so nice to see Sarkozy, Guéant and all those around them suffer defeat in May of this year. Cowardly politics that fuels hatred and resentment is the last thing that France needs right now.

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…

2012 is just around the corner

When it comes to razzle dazzle, showmanship, excitement and insanity, US presidential races rarely disappoint. And perhaps the most amusing political spectacle of all is the kind of free-for-all that we’ve seen in the republican nomination contest thus far.

As RCP’s nationwide polling average shows us, since March 2010, there have been at least four national frontrunners: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Texas Governor Rick Perry, businessman and pizza executive Herman Cain (who has since pulled out of the race following allegations of an illicit affair) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Other candidates, including Texas Congressman Ron Paul and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann have made it over the 10% mark in polling at one point or another, while somewhat more marginal candidates like former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum have polled strongly in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Another way of looking at the race so far is the search by republican voters for a “Not Romney” candidate – a viable conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, who has held positions in the past that are in direct contradiction with core GOP principles: support for universal healthcare (‘Romneycare‘ in Massachusetts was a direct inspiration for President Obama’s healthcare plan), past support for abortion rights, support for greater gun control, past support for a wide range of LGBT issues, past support for a stimulus plan in the midst of the 2008 economic crisis, and a wide range of other issues that have bred mistrust in the conservative community and claims that Romney is a ‘flip flopper’ of the same breed as Massachusetts Senator John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004. In addition, Romney’s Mormon faith is said by many to be a factor in his lack of strong conservative support, especially among evangelicals.

Yet one by one, Romney’s challengers have fallen by the wayside. Michele Bachmann, after winning the Iowa Straw Poll in August of 2011, embarrassed herself by seeming to criticise the principle of vaccination itself. Rick Perry, seen as a rock-solid conservative with extensive governing experience in a large state, embarrassed himself in a series of abysmal debate performances, including his famous ‘oops’ moment. Herman Cain, on top of not being particularly bright or intellectually curious, turned out to be a major philanderer who had trouble keeping it in his pants. And Newt Gingrich, while still polling strongly, has fallen in recent polls, especially in early states, amid accusations of making millions of dollars from lobbying and general doubts about his ability to govern.

But here we are, less than one week from the first nominating contest of the presidential season – the January 3 Iowa Caucus,  followed a week later by the New Hampshire primary and then a panoply of subsequent primaries and caucuses leading up to the August 2012 republican convention in Tampa, Florida, that will pick President Obama’s main adversary in November.

And amidst all of the to-ing and fro-ing, no clear, credible alternative to Mitt Romney remains. Newt Gingrich is still doing very well in nationwide polling, but has slumped in Iowa and New Hampshire. In those same two states, libertarian republican congressman Ron Paul is now polling a strong second behind Mitt Romney – but he has a series of nutty positions that include abolishing half of the federal government and returning to the gold standard which make him unelectable. He’s also 76 and has a pretty serious racist past. Rick Perry is dead in the water. Michele Bachmann’s campaign also seems in serious trouble.

The only other rivals to Mitt Romney with any life in them are Rick Santorum, the ultraconservative former senator from Pennsylvania who once compared gay sex to “man on dog” relations – he’s now polling a strong third in Iowa – and moderate former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who was formerly President Obama’s Ambassador to China, who’s doing fairly well in New Hampshire. But neither has wide enough support from the republican base to win the nomination.

Barring some kind of Newt Gingrich resurgency, or something truly unpredictable – like a Huntsman or Santorum surge, or a new breath of life into the Perry campaign – Mitt Romney has the nomination. And if he can somehow win both Iowa and New Hampshire, he can wrap up the nomination fight quickly and pivot to the general, where he’s polling quite well against a very, very weak President Obama.

I never thought I’d say this six months ago, but it looks like 2012 will be a lot more like 2008 than we thought – a moderate establishment candidate (McCain in 08, Romney this time around) with little trust from conservatives, running a solid campaign that pulverises all opponents soon after the primaries actually begin. That’s not good for President Obama, but it’s great for the republicans, because they can stop beating each other up and start campaigning against the incumbent.

Direct corporate contributions to candidates to be legalised in Tennessee: another win for corporatocracy!

It’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash

So said Pink Floyd in their 1973 hit, Money, off the Dark Side of the Moon album. Politicians in Tennessee agree wholeheartedly, it would seem. In the wake of the 2010 Citizens United v Federal Election Commission decision by the US Supreme Court, which ruled that corporations have the same right to free speech as citizens and should be able to directly fund independent political broadcasts, the Tennessee legislature has gone one step further and decided that companies should be able to give money directly to candidates – and that includes foreign companies! The Knoxville News Sentinel has the scoop:

Direct corporate donations to political candidates will be legalized in Tennessee and the amount that can be given by all contributors will be raised by about 40 percent under legislation approved by House and Senate committees Tuesday. For political action committees, for example, the maximum donation will increase from $7,500 to $10,700 and adjusted upward for inflation in future years. Corporations will be treated as if they were PACs [Political Action Committees – independent spending groups that can receive donations both from individuals and companies] under the bill, SB1915.

With Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, as sponsor, the bill was approved on a party-line vote by the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday morning. The House State and Local Government Committee approved it about three hours later on voice vote. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner noted that foreign-based corporations also would be allowed to contribute under the bill, though House sponsor Rep. Glen Casada, R-College Grove, said they will have to have a Tennessee presence to do so.

Companies have been able to participate in political life for years through PACs, but their involvement in elections has been limited mainly to independent advertising not directly linked to candidates. More and more, PACs have been able to donate money to candidates – both republican and democratic, by the way – and this new step both increases their ability to fund political campaigns and gives companies new tools to give more money to their preferred candidates. While grassroots fundraising will still make a difference, it seems clear that republicans are doing more and more to erode the ability of ordinary voters to have an impact on American political life – with candidates bought and sold by big business.

It’s extremely sad, because so much progress had been made in prior decades to try to take big money out of politics – while the sums raised by candidates never stopped growing, donation limits put in place by legislation like McCain-Feingold at least attempted to curb the power of individual donors. Now, we seem to be going in completely the opposite direction, with a complete deregulation of campaign financing. Stephen Colbert joked about getting Doritos to finance his 2008 presidential run – but how long until we actually see Mitt Romney, brought to you by Coca-Cola?

Belgium celebrates one year without a government

Various newspapers, magazines and news sites have picked up on what would normally be an anniversary to be ashamed of: Belgium has spent the past year effectively without a government. Yes, Yves Leterme’s cabinet resigned exactly one year ago today, bringing about early elections that led to a political stalemate and an inability to form a new government, meaning that Leterme’s caretaker team has stayed on to fill the gap.

Yet Belgians seem unbothered, if a little weary of the whole situation. As the Telegraph’s Bruno Waterfield points out:

With the help of decrees from King Albert II, Belgium’s monarch, the experiment in undemocratic government is widely regarded as a success.

The unelected rulers even succeeded in sending Belgium’s F15 fighter planes to take part in military strikes alongside the RAF in Libya.

The Belgian press have reported that the trains are running better than ever and Belgium’s football team, a rare symbol of national unity, is on track for the European championships.

Now, obviously, Waterfield is being more than a little facetious. Yet Belgium is, effectively, being run by a gouvernement démissionnaire – a government that has resigned and that should merely be filling the short gap between elections and the formation of a new coalition. And no-one expects the situation to end soon – indeed, as the Telegraph rightly states, it isn’t out of the question that Belgium could go an entire four-year parliamentary term without forming a new coalition. According to political scientist Kris Deschouwer points out, that’s not a big deal:

The absence of a government is not particularly serious. Life goes on, the communities and regions [Belgium is a federal state divided into three linguistic communities and three economic and geographical regions] still do their job, the European Union still works. What has ceased to function is a mechanism for reforming the state, which is the current precondition for forming a new government. It’s a very long crisis, but not a very serious or deep one. The Belgian federal model makes it possible for the system to work for a long period of time, even with one of the three levels of government lacking a fully-fledged government.

Indeed, Deschouwer goes on to coin a phrase that I particularly like: “Forming a government seems easier to me than terminating Belgium”. And he’s right – because Belgium’s governmental system is so complicated and byzantine that it simply breeds inertia, which means that there has to be a strong state apparatus at all levels to keep the whole thing going in case there’s a blockage somewhere.

Those who have lived in Belgium may already be aware of this, but it’s worth pointing out nevertheless: Belgium has six parliaments and six governments (seven, if you count the European Parliament and the other European institutions) for a population of 10-11 million people. Starting with the basics: Belgium is a Kingdom, with a monarch (King Albert II) and a bicameral parliamentary system with proportional representation. That means coalition governments from the get-go, since almost no country with a proportional system (Hungary being the notable exception) currently has a single-party majority government. But it gets more complicated than that. Belgium is divided in two (or, arguably, three) language groups. Almost 60% of Belgians speak Flemish, which is a dialect of Dutch (or, to be more precise, they learn Dutch at school, but speak various local variations of the language amongst themselves, which together can be called Flemish). These people are called the Flemings, and they live in Flanders. 40% of the population speaks French, and lives in Wallonia (the inhabitants of which are called Walloons) and Brussels, the officially bilingual but mainly French-speaking capital of Belgium. Less than one per cent of the population, living mainly in a few towns along the border of Germany, speaks German (these people are known, imaginatively enough, as German-speaking Belgians).

In a linguistically divided country, with two strong, distinct groups, forming a government becomes even harder. Without getting into the long history of linguistic politics in Belgium (that’s for another post – in the meantime, look it up), the country’s political system gradually split over the past half-century or so, in two main ways:

  • First of all, Belgium’s traditionally unitary party system, with three main factions (Christian democrats, liberals and socialists) split along linguistic lines, and fragmented as new parties emerged. That means that what was once a fairly simple three-party system became one with twelve parties represented in the federal parliament (five French-speaking and seven Flemish). For a government to gain legitimacy, it has become commonly accepted that it must command a majority of members of parliament on each side of the linguistic divide. Yves Leterme’s government, for example, brought together five parties (Christian democrats and liberals on the Flemish side; liberals, centrists and socialists on the French-speaking side); following the 2010 elections, it seems likely that any government formed will contain at least seven parties. That makes forming a working coalition that will last a full four-year term extremely difficult.
  • The political system has also split insofar as it moved from a strong unitary state to a fairly complicated federal construction. Without, once again, getting into the history of how it came to pass, Belgium is now a country divided into three regions and three communities, each of which has its own government. The three communities are the majority Dutch-speaking community, the minority French-speaking community, and the tiny German-speaking community. Each of these entities has its own parliament and its own government, handling issues such as education, culture and (to a certain extent) healthcare. But linguistic communities are geographically amorphous identities (the French-speaking community includes Wallonia and Brussels, the latter being a majority-French-speaking enclave in Flanders). As a result, Belgium also created three regions with their own parliaments and governments – Flanders*, Brussels (which belongs to both communities, and is officially bilingual) and Wallonia (which includes the German-speaking community). These regions have wide powers over economic development, infrastructure, housing, agriculture and other similar matters. Confused? I’m not surprised. On top of this, the federal government still has substantial powers in terms of justice, defence, foreign affairs, social welfare, nuclear energy and various state-owned companies (like the railways).

So it’s complicated and somewhat kafkaesque. What it all means, though, is that with so many veto points, so many divisions and levels of government, the role of the civil service and administration is essential – and top-level Belgian civil servants are some of the most capable in the world (on top of having to speak a multitude of languages, they must navigate the tough political and cultural landscape on a daily basis). What is more, even as governments change, nothing fundamentally changes in Belgium. The coalition-based political system means that only one or two parties move in and out of any given national or regional government after any given election – and even if a party is in opposition on the federal level, there is a good chance that it will be in government on a regional level, or vice-versa. What that means is that even as Belgium seems unstable on the surface, and slowly drifting apart, with Flemings and French-speakers having less and less in common, it is actually much stronger and more durable than most people think. Which is why, honestly, no-one really cares all that much that the political parties are all acting like petulant children and incapable of forming any kind of coalition a year after the last one collapsed – everyone knows that nothing will really change all that much, and they quite like it that way.

*The Flemish region and Flemish community have merged their insitutions – a meaningless piece of trivia, but an explanation of why Belgium has six parliaments instead of seven.

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.