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…

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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.

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.

Newt Gingrich is running for president

It seems that, after the announcement from former pizza exec Herman Cain that he’s setting up a presidential exporatory committee, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is doing the same:

The 2012 Republican race for president has a second candidate! According to “confidants close to the former House speaker”… Newt Gingrich will announce his decision to form a presidential exploratory committee by the end of this week…

Newt Gingrich was once the most important republican in politics, as leader of his party in the House of Representatives. But he’s been out of elective politics for over ten years. And while he’s undoubtedly an intelligent and brilliant man who’s managed to stay in the public eye despite more than a decade out of office, he’s also been married three times (never a good way to connect with those religious conservatives), and divorced his ex-wife while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer. That’s John Edwards-style behaviour that would be unacceptable from a democrat.

However, his history of bigoted, populist comments may prove more damaging in an election against President Obama, even if they serve him well in a republican primary. Media Matters has a good selection of some of his worst recent utterings:

A June 16, 1995,Washington Post article reported that Gingrich, in a discussion with black journalists, stated that the failure of poor black people to acquire wealth was in part due to their “habits.”

A January 19, 1995, New York Times article reported on concerns about women in military combat roles that Gingrich had raised while teaching a history course at Georgia’s Reinhardt College… The Times reported that Gingrich told his students that “females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections…”

On the November 14, 2008, edition of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, Gingrich stated… “I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence, to use harassment.”

And so on and so forth. I’m not convinced that American journalists are hard-working and courageous enough to actually call Gingrich on his public nastiness. But I do think that, while many Southern and rural white voters won’t see a problem with many of the things that Gingrich has said, minority voters and educated whites will be disgusted enough by the man’s comments to turn out in bigger numbers than usual to ensure that he doesn’t get elected to the White House. Even Sarah Palin hasn’t said anything remotely as bigoted, even if she’s spouted some crazy nonsense at times. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are practically democrats in comparison.

This is all, of course, assuming that a thrice-divorced overweight man who’s been out of politics for more than ten years can win the republican nomination.

Baby steps towards marriage equality in the United States

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that I’m a huge supporter of marriage rights for LGBT couples. It’s a question of basic equality and justice. That’s why I’m so happy about this particular piece of news:

In a major policy reversal, the Obama administration said Wednesday it will no longer defend the constitutionality of a federal law banning recognition of same-sex marriage.

Attorney General Eric Holder said President Barack Obama has concluded that the administration cannot defend the federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. He noted that the congressional debate during passage of the Defense of Marriage Act “contains numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships – precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus the (Constitution’s) Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against.”

The Justice Department had defended the act in court until now.

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law by Bill Clinton – and it, alongside Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), was one of the worst decisions of Clinton’s presidency. Agreeing to republican legislation banning gay marriage nationwide was based purely on the crass political calculation that more voters were homophobes than LGBT activists.

It’s clear that that’s changing. Back in the 1990s, no-one even bothered to poll opinions on same-sex unions. In 2010, for the first time, a CNN poll found that 52% of adult Americans “think gays and lesbians should have a constitutional right to get married and have their marriage recognized by law as valid.” While I remain doubtful that a majority of Americans would vote for marriage equality, attitudes do seem to have changed substantially. Homophobia is becoming less and less ‘okay’. As more and more people dare to come out of the closet, people across the country are coming to the realisation that – surprise, surprise – gay people are just people, like anyone else. That’s brilliant news.

So while today’s decision isn’t anywhere near gay marriage, and should have come two years ago, it’s certainly a positive step, and one that reflects the astonishing progress that the gay rights cause has made in American public opinion over the past couple of decades. It’s why I’m happy to have a democrat in the White House, even if I’d like to see marriage equality right away, and I don’t think President Obama has gone far enough. Just imagine where we’d be if John McCain had won in November 2008. We’d still have DADT, we’d be nowhere close to DOMA repeal, and President McCain might well have announced his support for a federal gay marriage ban.

That’s why elections matter.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) reveals he was sexually molested as a child

This takes some serious courage as a republican, a politician and a human being. So kudos to Senator Scott Brown, republican of Massachusetts, for lifting the veil:

Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) told 60 Minutes he was sexually abused by a camp counselor as a child. He says  he never told anyone and that even his mother will read about it for the first time in his forthcoming book, Against All Odds.

The video of the interview is here. I’m amazed that a republican senator actually had the courage to talk about this in public, and I admire his courage. It can’t be easy. But it’s a huge problem, and it’s wonderful that someone is actually talking about it. Between 15 and 25% of women and 5 to 15% of men in America were abused at some point during their childhood. I’m guessing that the statistics are similar elsewhere in the world. It’s got to be one of the most traumatic experiences that one could ever live through. And while millions of people have suffered as a result of it, child abuse is something to which few public faces have been attached, even with the Catholic Church sex scandals. Billie Holiday, Carlos Santana, Marilyn Monroe and Oprah Winfrey are the few people that spring to mind, though there are no doubt others who have not made public their past childhood traumas.

I remember living in Ireland during the first (or perhaps it was the second?) wave of the clerical sex scandals there. I remember the faces of those that had finally summoned the courage to talk about their horrific experiences on camera. And it’s clear that there were millions more like them who were molested by priests, camp counsellors, teachers, doctors and family members. It’s always good to have a public face who’s willing to talk about his or her own experiences. It’s always good to know that you’re not alone. Scott Brown may have sacrificed his presidential ambitions by talking about his being sexually abused as a child, but he’s certainly gained my respect. Well done, Senator.

President… Trump?

I’ll confess right away that I feel guilty for not writing about Egypt tonight. The world’s eyes are on Cairo, and I’m writing about American politics. But as I’ve said before, you can find far more useful and interesting commentary elsewhere on the blogosphere and the twittersphere.

Instead, I bring you future President Trump at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC):

Donald Trump wanted the crowd of activists at the Conservative Political Action Committee to know just who he thinks has the skills, smarts and guts to be president: Donald Trump, of course.

He bragged that he had beaten “many people and companies” and “earned billions of dollars,” earning him the title of the world’s most competitive businessman, he said. He contrasted himself with President Obama, who he said “came out of nowhere… With no track record. There was no record. Nothing to criticize,” Mr. Trump said. “Nobody knew who the hell he was.”

Mr. Obama has turned America into the “laughing stock” of the world, Mr. Trump said. “The United States has become a whipping post for the rest of the world.” By contrast, he said that a President Trump would move quickly to restore respect of America. He said he is pro-life, against gun control and will work to repeal Mr. Obama’s health care plan. “If I decide to run, I will not be raising taxes,” he said. Under his administration, Mr. Trump said America will be “taking in hundreds of millions of dollars from countries that are screwing us.”

I really hope he runs – and he says that he’ll let us know by June of this year. He’s toyed with presidential runs in the past, but this one actually seems serious. And he’d be the perfect republican candidate, honestly. He’s bankrupted companies. He’s a jerk. He’s been married five times. And he has wonderful hair:

Truly, truly, a God among men – and God’s gift to women. And it’s all so amazingly insincere. How do you think this would play with the republican base, for example?