Tuesday, January 03, 2012

 

Republicana 2012: Meet the Candidates

Both parties have primaries, but this year no-one on the Democratic side is challenging Barack Obama for the nomination, so the excitement is all on the Republican side.
In alphabetical order, then, here are the contenders for the Republican nomination:
Michele Bachmann
The only woman in the Republican field, Bachmann - a congresswoman from Minnesota - inevitably drew comparisons to a certain former vice presidential candidate. She was originally thought of as a wild-eyed, less media-savvy version of Sarah Palin; as her profile, popularity and exposure grew and as Palin's potential sank she started to be thought of by alarmed opponents as more of a Sarah Palin with brains.
Media exposure was not kind to Bachmann, however. The more voters found out about her, the less they liked her. As a congresswoman she has few achievements to her name; indeed, apart from a gift for leveraging right-wing ideology to win elections, she hasn't achieved much in politics at all. She proudly reports having raised more than 20 (mostly foster) children, and her husband once ran a Christian counselling centre promising to 'cure' homosexuality through prayer. Even among her evangelical base, those things are a bit weird. Her tendency to gaffe was the final nail in the coffin of her once burgeoning popularity: among other things, she once accidentally identified herself with an infamous Iowan serial killer, misplaced the site of a famous battle in the American Revolution to the wrong state (particularly embarrassing for a candidate whose tea party base fetishises the war of independence), and thoughtlessly repeated on TV a factually insupportable assertion made to her by an aggrieved parent about how a vaccine supposedly caused 'mental retardation' in her child. She very rarely apologises for such gaffes. They have undermined her veneer of ideological rigour, and she now needs a top three finish in Iowa - at least - to progress much further. While that seems a bit unlikely, her organisational strength in Iowa and status as a leading Tea Partier means that it’s still worth keeping an eye on her.

Newt Gingrich
The former Georgia congressman and Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1998 comes with so much baggage and so many character flaws that he was written off almost from the very beginning of his campaign, when – shortly after announcing his candidacy – he incurred the wrath of his party for criticising congressman Paul Ryan’s thoughtful (and extremely conservative) budget proposals, then disappeared off on vacation for a two week Greek island cruise, after which most of his staff quit. Having thus been reduced to a laughing stock, he went off the radar for a while.
His persistence paid off, however, as the anyone-but-Romney train finally pulled into his station in December after the implosion of Herman Cain’s campaign. He rose in the polls enough to proclaim himself very likely to become the nominee, which frightened the rest of the Republican establishment so much that all the other candidates launched a series of scathing – and very effective - attacks on him, and he has now fallen back.
Why does everyone hate him so much? It’s hard to count the ways. His temperament and leadership skills have a history of alienating everyone, from the Republican congressmen who booted him out of the Speaker’s chair in 1998 to his campaign staff this year. His self-proclaimed identity as an intellectual (he styles himself an historian rather than a politician) gives him a tendency to attach himself to ideas that sound clever but often aren’t (or at least, aren’t good politics), such as describing the Palestinians as an invented nation or calling for a moon base to harvest minerals. His strategic vision is extremely erratic: while his Contract with America helped Republicans capture the House for the first time in 50 years in the 1994 election, his subsequent battles with President Bill Clinton saw the Republicans come out worse after a government shutdown, helping Clinton get re-elected in 1996; his pledge to not run any negative ads in this race has been a disaster as his opponents have all rubbished him with attack ads of his own. He has a tendency to be absurdly self-important: he often compares himself to Churchill and Reagan as leaders who gained power and then had to spend time in the political wilderness before being returned to power to take up the true mantle of greatness. He also has a tendency to absurd self-rationalisations, such as claiming that he deliberately took that Greek holiday to bring tensions in his campaign team to a head, because he knew that his team wasn’t good enough and wanted them out. (This sometimes can work to his advantage, though: that decision not to run negative ads may have been the best possible spin on the fact that he had no money to create or run them anyway.) Oh, and there’s the small matter of his personal life: he cheated on his second wife with his current wife, and before that he cheated on his first wife with his second wife. At some point in the cascade of wives, the wife being cheated on was battling cancer. At another point – or possibly the same one – he was simultaneously trying to impeach Bill Clinton for having extramarital sexual relations.
So maybe the question should be: what did anyone see in him in early December? The answer seems to be his rhetorical skills – the consensus is that he was the strongest performer in a series of Republican debates this autumn, and other candidates fear receiving his tongue-lashings as much as conservative voters love seeing them directed at President Obama. His background as a Republican legend (winning back the House) and as an intellectual heavyweight didn’t hurt either. But now that he’s back on his way down, the way forward for him is difficult to see.

Jon Huntsman
Of all this year's crop of Republicans, Huntsman is the only one to be notable for his moderation. He supports civil unions for gay couples and is strikingly reasonable and pragmatic in his tone on foreign policy. He also tones down his attacks on Barack Obama, as well he might since the President is his most recent boss: he reached across the aisle by accepting the President's offer to become the American ambassador to China in the bipartisan moment after the 2008 election. Before that he was a successful Republican governor of Utah, an ambassador to Singapore, and the boss of a large chemical company. He speaks fluent Mandarin.
For all his glittering career, though, there are many things that limit his appeal to Republicans. Like Romney, he is a Mormon, a faith much-distrusted by others. Like Romney, he was a business leader and now owns a fortune. Like Romney, he got a strong start in life from his family; the business he ran was a family one that is still controlled by his father. Indeed, he is so much like Mitt Romney in all areas other than policy that he struggles to define himself as much different - except in matters of policy, where his moderate stances contrast with the fiery mood of the conservative electorate.
His most passionate supporters seem to be in the press: as quite a reasonable, moderate person, he is the candidate that liberal journalists love to not be hating. He also has a certain amount of traction in New Hampshire, the second state to vote; he has abandoned most of his efforts elsewhere and is focusing on the New Hampshire primary single-mindedly in an effort to gain credibility with a strong finish there. But he doesn't seem to be doing very well. Strikingly, now that Santorum is looking healthier in Iowa, Huntsman is the only candidate that the anyone-but-Romney crowd hasn't tried out yet.

(Correction: I originally said that Huntsman supported gay marriage - he actually supports civil unions and the right of states to define marriage as they wish, but he doesn't support gay marriage as such. This is the same position as Barack Obama.)

Ron Paul
A Texas congressman and perennial presidential candidate, Ron Paul has long been a lonely figure on the fringes of the Republican Party. A convinced libertarian, he espouses policies like drug legalisation and foreign policy isolationism that are deeply at odds with Republican orthodoxy. In truth, he has rarely aimed at winning the nomination, hoping instead simply to raise the profile of libertarian policies.
In the tea party era, this has become his secret weapon. Tea party insurgent candidates in 2010 were disgusted by the bipartisan consensus on how economics works. Since that consensus was fundamentally a Reaganite one derived from Republican ideas, an alternative set of ideas that was acceptable to right-leaning voters was required. Enter libertarianism. Paul strongly emphasises having a tiny government (he wants to abolish many federal departments and gut many of the rest), much lower taxes, private provision of currently government-run services, and slashing government spending and thus the deficit. These all chime with a new Republican orthodoxy forged in opposition to President Obama’s policies of deficit spending to boost the economy, providing a nice, ready-made intellectual framework on which to hang the nakedly political opposition to Obama’s policies. Many of the ideas that Paul has long espoused have thus come in from the cold.
Some of his other ideas have not, however, and therein lies his greatest weakness. Ending drug prohibition and government welfare systems entirely would horrify conservative voters and dramatically harm the interests of many conservative donors. Withdrawing all troops based overseas and ending American engagement with the rest of the world would horrify the Republican foreign policy establishment (and most of America’s allies). And while conspiracy-minded folk have flocked to his suggestion of abolishing the Federal Reserve (America’s central bank), seeing the Fed as a nice candidate for arch-villain of the financial crisis, most sensible businesspeople are horrified by the suggestion.  That’s three too many uses of the word “horrify” for him to win the nomination. Recent reports linking him to racist ideas in libertarian newsletters he edited in the 1980s and 1990s have also revealed a nasty side – if not to Paul himself (who claims he didn’t see the offending articles and certainly never supported such things), then at least to the crazy folk that he has been hanging out with on the extreme wings of the political spectrum.
But he does have the courage of his convictions, a major plus in a time when most of the other leading candidates have only recently converted to their current platforms. He has attracted a very highly-motivated set of volunteers, who are both younger – many of them college students – and richer than average. This has boosted both the energy levels of his campaign (all those students will work hard to boost turnout for him in Iowa) and his fundraising, enabling him to run a number of TV ads bashing Romney and Gingrich and pointing out his ideological virtues. Right now he resembles nothing so much as a normal politician enjoying his time as Iowa front-runner.
A final note. He probably doesn’t expect to win the nomination. But his promotion of libertarian ideas has taken him out of the Republican Party before. He is likely to stay in the race for as long as he possibly can, regardless of his chances of success. If the support is there for it – and it looks like it is – he may well launch a third party candidacy for presidency later in the year, an act which would severely damage the prospects of the eventual Republican nominee.

Rick Perry
Rick Perry was the last major candidate to jump into the race, and came with very high hopes attached. A three-term governor of Texas, he is solid in all the right ways. He has never lost an election. He has run Texas with swagger, unhesitatingly executing death row prisoners and holding massive prayer rallies. Recently, he even shot a coyote that was menacing his dog while he was out jogging. (He takes his gun jogging.) He also has a reputation for being a practical and effective governor who has been able to appeal to various Republican target groups, such as Hispanics. When he first launched his campaign he was for a time the front runner.
All that swagger reminds a lot of people of his predecessor as Texas governor, though. And just like George W. Bush, Perry has made a string of verbal gaffes. By late autumn they had derailed his campaign. Even before getting into the race, he raised eyebrows by suggesting that Texas could secede from the union; since joining, he has managed to accuse the Federal Reserve chairman of treason, flub his zingers in debates, accuse the vast majority of Republicans of being “heartless” for opposing university subsidies for long-resident children of illegal immigrants, and – most damagingly – spectacularly fail in a debate to remember the list of three government departments that he was pledging to abolish (ending with the immortal word, “Oops”). He is no longer taken very seriously, to the point where some commentators have taken to wondering how on earth he managed to get elected three times in Texas.
He still has some advantages, notably a very well-funded campaign and the support of very well-funded Super PACs (third party organisations funded by anonymous donors, which run ads supporting him). He has recently swung to the right on social issues, including on homosexuality and abortion (both of which he opposes, in case you were wondering). It seems unlikely that this will be enough to bring him victory.

Mitt Romney
The front-runner in this race since the beginning, Romney has a lot of advantages. He has chiselled looks and a squeaky clean personal life. He has insider pedigree: his father was a notable governor of Michigan in the 1960s and ran for President himself, and Mitt was a successful governor of Massachusetts. He ran, credibly, for President in 2008. He has outstanding private sector experience too, as both a businessman (as a founder of Bain Capital he has built a fortune measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars) and a populist (he put the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics back on track after a scandal). Based on previous electoral cycles, he should have been able to wrap up the support of the party establishment by now and be on course to cruise to the nomination.
The fact that this hasn't happened points up his weaknesses. He is a man of deep faith who carries out many worthy charitable activities as a devoted member of the lay clergy; but his faith is Mormonism, which other religious denominations view with considerable suspicion. His ruthless conduct in the 2008 campaign alienated all the other candidates and their establishment supporters, and that distance has never really been bridged. His tremendous private sector wealth gives him an aura of privilege and feeds suspicions that he doesn't understand the lot of the common man, a suspicion also fed by his wooden and unapproachable manner on the campaign trail, a series of testy interviews and debate performances, and a bizarre "Well golly gee Mister, I don't happen to agree with you" speaking style that is either an affectation or an anachronism.
His worst sin of all is a lack of conviction on the issues. He brought management consulting-style problem solving skills to bear on the question of getting elected governor of Massachusetts, and that served him well there, but in 2008, when the policies he needed to try to win the national nomination were different, he simply changed his policies. Politicians are expected to have convictions, and his changing positions on a wide range of subjects made it easy for his opponents to cast him as a flip-flopper. Primary voters, who tend to be more ideological than most, are suspicious - with good reason - that he will swing back to the centre again after being nominated. Bottom line: voters don't trust him.
Because of all of this, voters have swung from one non-Romney candidate to another in 2011, trying to find someone who could be a plausible alternative. The fact that they haven't succeeded doesn't mean that the base will be enthusiastic if Romney does get the nomination. But Romney may not need that enthusiasm to be chosen as the Republican nominee: his campaign’s deep pockets and strong organisation mean that he is ready for a long slog if the early states don’t break his way, and no other campaign is as ready to move on to the later states as the Romney campaign. While he should be very worried indeed that his popularity isn’t breaking the 25% barrier, he remains the clear favourite to win the nomination.

Rick Santorum
On the face of it, Rick Santorum seems like an unlikely figure to run for president: as a two-term senator from Pennsylvania he was one of his party’s brightest young social conservative stars, but he lost his seat in 2006. The only reason that most people outside of Pennsylvania have heard of him is because of a cruel joke (albeit one that some would say was richly deserved): after a particularly hate-filled speech about homosexuality, some online activists took their revenge through a campaign to redefine the first thing that comes up when you search the internet for 'santorum'. (Google it to see how successful they were.)
But while his political career might have been thought to have ended, his ideological conviction is not in doubt. He really, genuinely earned the hatred of the gay community, often likening homosexuality to bestiality and denying the validity of same sex relationships. He is also known as a passionate opponent of abortion rights. His own family is large and he and his wife homeschool their children. These positions, once at the hardcore end of the Republican spectrum, have since become party orthodoxy and Santorum has never had to shift his positions to align with what's expected, unlike some other leading candidates. He also has much to say about rebuilding America's industrial base, meaning that he actually represents one of the more solid policy packages on offer to socially conservative, blue collar voters. Of the candidates emphasising their social conservatism, unlike Perry he has no embarrassing lapses into human decency in his record, and unlike both Perry and Bachmann he doesn't make many gaffes.
Why hasn't he caught on before now, then? Partly because he's not very appealing: he doesn't strike a particularly presidential figure, showing little of Romney's authority or Perry's swagger. (Indeed, he often comes across as a bit whiny.) Perhaps more importantly, he is very much a family values conservative at a time when the party and the country are gripped by economic issues. His staunch positions are in many ways reminiscent of the battles of the Clinton and Bush eras, but he's running in the time of Obama. He has failed to catch the public's imagination.
By simple process of elimination, however, the anyone-but-Romney train has pulled into his station with just days to go before the Iowa caucuses. He has dedicated himself to the state, visiting all 99 counties before any other candidate. He may only attract small crowds, but his perseverance may still reap some rewards. Polls show that he has some momentum going into the caucuses. And indeed, why not Santorum? A candidate who rounded up all the socially conservative voters who are currently splitting their vote among other non-Romney candidates could be quite a fearsome figure. Perhaps his moment has come, though it still seems very unlikely.

Honorable Mention
Buddy Roemer, a former governor of Louisiana, is also running for the Republican nomination on a platform of attacking the malign influence of money in politics. Apart from a few appearances on the Colbert Report, however, he seems to have achieved little traction. After being out of politics for two decades, and having refused to take any donations over $100, it doesn’t look like his campaign is going anywhere.

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