Wanted: A New Ronald Reagan

GOP voting this year is extraordinarily volatile: Republicans’ heads and hearts are completely disconnected – really, they just want Ronald Reagan back

Dispatches US Politics
Four candidates, four factions — but can one man unite the Republicans? Let to right: Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul

For all that Mitt Romney must still be considered the front runner for the Republican nomination in August, the race is wide open, and might well remain so even after 437 delegates — one-fifth of the total — are chosen on “Super Tuesday”, March 6. Romney and Rick Santorum have each won four states. Santorum’s stunning three-nil victories for Colorado (40 per cent to Romney’s 35 per cent), Minnesota (44.8 per cent to 27.2 per cent) and the Missouri “beauty contest” (55.2 per cent to 25.3 per cent) show that he is far more of a formidable candidate for the much coveted Not-Mitt position than is Newt Gingrich, who has so far only won South Carolina. Yet on February 11, Romney beat Santorum in Maine by 39 per cent to Santorum’s 18 per cent and more surprisingly among the attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) by 38 per cent to 31 per cent. The Maine turnout was pathetically small — Romney won with 2,190 votes out of the 297,000 registered Republicans there — which hardly augurs well for the struggle against President Obama in November.

The extraordinary volatility of the voting this year is easily explicable: Republicans’ heads and hearts are completely disconnected. In their hearts they want Ronald Reagan back, and they dislike Mitt Romney for the way he had to tack leftwards over social issues in order to secure the governorship of Massachusetts. They don’t like the Romneycare health plan, the country-club smooth Establishment feel to him, the asset-stripper reputation (however undeserved) from his time at Bain Capital, and his supposed lack of passion. Yet in their heads they know that in order to beat Barack Obama in November — the ultimate holy grail — they need someone who can appeal to moderates, independents and even disillusioned Democrats, of whom there are many millions here. They also know that a successful businessman who can read a balance sheet will be far more attractive to the floating voter than the socially ultra-conservative Santorum or the personal baggage-laden Gingrich. Republican voters know whom they ultimately have to choose, but so far only about 38 per cent of them ever seem willing to do it. Even in Maine, a moderate New England state that Romney should have swept, the swivel-eyed isolationist Ron Paul got 36 per cent of the vote. 

With only 5.4 per cent of the 2,286 delegates to August’s Republican national convention in Tampa elected so far, Romney (with 123 delegates to Santorum’s 72 and Gingrich’s 37) has a very long way to go before reaching the magic number of 1,144 needed to secure the nomination, so the historically unprecedented volatility of this race may yet hold some surprises. Certainly, the prospect that Romney staffers held out after New Hampshire of a leisurely stroll to the winning line is now totally out of the question. Moreover, there are now three more debates scheduled, giving Santorum another opportunity to attack Romney over his healthcare and Bain achilles’ heels.

Romney was greatly helped by the fact that Florida was the first large state to vote, so intimate town hall meetings weren’t as important as TV and radio advertising, indeed for the most part they were impossible to undertake. The no fewer than ten local media networks in Florida mean that it costs $1m per week to broadcast statewide TV ads there, and by the last week of the Florida vote no fewer than 92 per cent of them were “negatives”, i.e. attacking the opponent rather than praising the candidate. Of people who watched these TV ads — which is pretty much every Floridian, as they are hard to miss and anyhow make compulsive viewing — 52 per cent broke towards Romney and only 29 per cent for Gingrich. They work. The prize for the nastiest attack in the race so far goes to Gingrich’s automatic phone call, or “robocall”, that stated that Romney “once vetoed a bill paying for kosher food for our seniors in nursing homes — Holocaust survivors — who for the first time were forced to eat non-kosher because Romney thought $5 was too much to pay for our grandparents to eat kosher.” Gingrich’s first move after conceding defeat in Florida was thus to contact his 1.4 million Twitter followers asking for more money for ads like that.

The problems facing Romney are many, varied and serious, though ultimately those facing his opponents are far greater. They start with the fact that beyond “free enterprise” — which he has yet to define adequately — and his own business curriculum vitae, he doesn’t seem to stand for anything. His evident lack of passion makes even friends worry that he isn’t hungry enough for the prize. There is no cause to which Romney cleaves, nor even an uplifting soundbite that works for him yet. Much as one might despise the slickness of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America”, George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and especially Barack Obama’s “Hope and Change” — let alone “Yes We Can!” — at least they encapsulated neatly the fundamental appeal that each man was trying to make.

To many non-Americans the United States’ system for choosing a president seems arcane, absurd, grossly plutocratic and more than faintly corrupt. Yet it does have a positive side, though more by luck than judgment. Iowa is a small, poor Christian Midwestern state, New Hampshire is a relatively well-off eastern seaboard state, South Carolina a small Southern and Florida a big Southern state. Then they move to the three midwestern states before heading back to east coast Maine. These states all require very different messages, different expertise, different types of involvement from the candidates. Super Tuesday — the simultaneous votes taken across ten states on March 6 — ends all that.

Romney’s next problem is that the Super Tuesday states are all ones where the delegates are awarded in proportion to the number of votes cast, not, as with Florida’s 50 delegates, winner-takes-all. This means that it will be far harder for Romney to deliver the knock-out blow that would take both Gingrich and Santorum out of the race. (Ron Paul has the fanatical support of enough libertarians to ensure that he will probably stay in all the way to the convention, come what may). What Romney does not want to happen is for conservative Republicans, who are pretty much the only demographic he does not have sewn up despite the CPAC vote, to coalesce around Santorum before Super Tuesday, as they did in Iowa, thereby effectively ending the hopes of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, especially once Herman Cain so spectacularly self-imploded. To lose Gingrich from the race too early would automatically raise Santorum’s numbers, although the largest of the Super Tuesday states, with 76 delegates, is Gingrich’s home state of Georgia, so he can be guaranteed a good platform that night, come what may.

There are plenty of reasons why anti-Romney Republicans have begun coalescing around Santorum rather than Gingrich, indeed the surprising thing is that it hasn’t happened earlier. Gingrich’s disastrous performance in the Florida debate, in which he looked nonplussed when Romney assaulted him over his attack ads, and in which he utterly failed to cow CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in his now traditional attack on the media, was also the occasion when Santorum delivered some powerful blows on Romney over the Romneycare health plan, which presaged Obama’s own scheme, which is wildly unpopular with Republicans of all stripes. In the several hours I spent touring the Miami suburbs the day before the Florida vote, I only spotted one single forlorn Gingrich poster.

Gingrich was always going to have trouble among the old, women and Hispanics in Florida, with Romney extravagantly promising to defend Medicare and Medicaid from cuts, Gingrich’s ex-wife claiming that he had asked her for an open marriage, and then the news emerging that Gingrich had once, sort of, almost, kind of, implied that Spanish was “the language of the ghetto” (which he quickly denied having done). Yet the conservatives’ case against Gingrich    focuses on the moment last April when Rep Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the poster boy of fiscal responsibility, came up with his radical plan to address the budget deficit, which conservatives defended against a hyperbolic attack from the Left, and Gingrich denounced as “right-wing social engineering”. Gingrich’s albeit tentative embrace of the concept of man-made climate change, which many conservative Republicans routinely describe as a “hoax”, and his support of cap-and-trade don’t help, nor does the memory of the Republicans’ mutiny against his speakership of the House in the 1990s. Worst of all is the $1.6m he earned advising Fannie Mae, which is widely blamed by conservatives as being at least in part responsible for the 2008 crash.

Switch on Morning Joe (NBC), Fareed Zakaria (CNN), the ABC and CBS morning programmes, Bloomberg News and often even the splendidly robust Fox & Friends, therefore, and one sees distinguished Republicans queuing up to denounce Gingrich for his various apostasies against conservatism from the Reagan administration onwards. All White House strategists have to do is sit back and press the “record” button in the unlikely event that he wins the nomination. Indeed, they could do worse than replay his acceptance speech at South Carolina, in which he actually commended Ron Paul for his fiscal ideas (i.e. abolishing the Federal Reserve), and remind America’s financially-strapped voters that Gingrich had a $500,000 charge account at Tiffany’s.

The next primaries are in Michigan and Arizona, with 30 and 29 delegates respectively. There have already been an almost inconceivable 25 debates, with three more to go, which is also unprecedented in a nomination race. If Gingrich does badly in the next debate in Arizona or in Georgia, Santorum will take on the mantle of the stop-Romney forces. Several key conservative columnists and radio hosts are urging this, in a last-ditch attempt to stop Romney, a man they see — not without reason — as lacking a solid core of conservative beliefs before he spotted the electoral need to adopt them. “Everybody is guilty of some transgression somewhere against conservatism,” says Rush Limbaugh, “except Santorum.”

The Republican Party has long been a coalition of businessmen, Christians, foreign policy hawks and ideological free-marketeers. Of course it’s perfectly possible to be all four at once, indeed many Republicans are, but in this election each of these tendencies has had a different paladin who has made each position his personal fiefdom: Romney speaks for business, Gingrich for the hawks, Santorum for the social and religious conservatives and Paul for the libertarian head-bangers who want to put America back on the gold standard. Sadly, no one speaks, like Ronald Reagan managed to, for all four strands of the party simultaneously, and sounds as though he means it.