What the Republican Primaries of 2012 Are Telling Us
One tie, one win, one loss… and now, on the eve of the Florida primary, Willard Mitt Romney appears to be coasting toward his party’s nomination. At least that’s what the professional soothsayers are telling us, and I won’t dispute their wisdom even though the actual nominating convention is still seven long months away.
With Newt Gingrich fading fast, nobody in the current G.O.P. field seems poised to deal the recently reinvigorated Romney a death-blow. It’s unlikely that he’ll crack under the strain of campaigning or abscond to the Bahamas with a Venezuelan mistress. He won’t run out of cash, either.
Barring a Tea Party insurrection at the Republican convention in Tampa this August, the Mittster will walk away as the G.O.P. presidential nominee. He’ll earn the right to joust with President Obama and knock him off his horse, though nobody is really excited about his candidacy.
So how does such a plain vanilla contender emerge as the standard-bearer for the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and George W. Bush? The same way that such tepid warriors as John McCain, John Kerry, Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale won their respective nominations: the quirkier candidates self-destructed (remember Howard Dean’s primal yell?), and the bland survivors diligently collected the most delegate votes during the primaries.
Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn’t return to the days when a convention was more than a coronation… when sweaty delegates bickered behind closed doors in the sweltering summer heat, tempers flaring in a heavy haze of cigar smoke. At least there was a little suspense, and we never knew if the delegates would pick a Franklin D. Roosevelt or a John W. Davis.
But since 1972, when primaries became binding (as opposed to mere “beauty contests” to test a candidate’s viability), we’ve gone the democratic route in selecting party nominees. It seems fitting and proper, and yet…
For me at least, the 2012 G.O.P. primary season has exposed some glaring flaws in the system. But I’ve seen one or two bright spots, too. What have these contests been telling us?
1. It pays to have money. BIG money. Romney is a self-made mogul, of course, and Gingrich is loaded, too — though not to the same order of magnitude as the former head of Bain Capital. But Gingrich’s friend and supporter, billionaire casino tycoon and ardent Zionist Sheldon Adelson, is even more loaded than Romney. Both Romney and Gingrich also benefit from superfunded Super PACs — those cleverly conceived “independent” political action committees made possible by the Supreme Court’s notorious Citizens United decision. These Super PACs can now collect unlimited contributions from “anonymous” donors and spend liberally (not a dirty word for Republicans in this context) to maximize a candidate’s exposure. Under the current system, we’ll never choose a candidate who challenges the system. And of course that’s precisely how the big-money interests would have it.
2. Money seems to buy votes. You’d think that American voters would favor the candidates who impressed them during the recent debating season. You’d think they’d know each candidate’s virtues and foibles by now and have their minds made up. But no… apparently voters are responding to the candidates who campaign most vigorously in their own state. Example: Gingrich put tremendous money and effort into his South Carolina campaign — and guess what? He won. Are voters really so impressionable that a rousing round of pep rallies, baby-kissing and distorted TV ads will brainwash them? The answer is yes. After all, these are the same folks who watch “Jersey Shore” and buy products emblazoned with the magic label “AS SEEN ON TV.” We trust the wisdom of the people, though lately I have to wonder what they’ve been imbibing. As Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others.
3. Early votes count more than later votes. We’re looking at the fourth contest of the primary season, and yet Romney is already poised to lock up the nomination. What about the other 46 states, you ask? Don’t their votes count? Well, yes and no. They still have to go through the motions, but nobody wants to vote for a prospective loser — with the possible exception of Ron Paul’s fan club. In short, the early primaries count more than the later primaries when it comes to making or breaking a candidate. Unfair? Sure it is. Wouldn’t it be better if all fifty states held their primaries or caucuses on the same day? Of course it would. If all the states can vote for president on a single day, they should be able to choose their party’s candidate the same way.
4. Republican voters were wise to reject fringe candidates. Rabble-rousing right-wingers Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry took the hint and bowed out in the early going. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are still standing, but they’re no more likely to win the nomination than a turkey is likely to fly nonstop from New York to Seattle. Republicans can choose to make a statement with an uncompromisingly conservative candidate — the way they did with Barry Goldwater back in 1964 — and go down in uncompromising flames. Or they can pick someone of a less ideological bent who actually has a fair chance of capturing moderate votes.
5. Obama is looking stronger all the time. Sure, he’s better at making promises than keeping them. He’s inclined to dither when he needs to lead. And he’s inexplicably tight with Wall Street elites, especially for someone the conservatives love to denounce as a “socialist.” We’re still at war, and the American economy still isn’t looking stellar. But the president has slowly been gaining an aura of invincibility as every single G.O.P. “flavor of the month” candidate has tripped and fallen. The elusive shape-shifting Romney remains upright, but it’s hard to see how a slick representative of the “one percent” can make a case for himself while an increasingly disgruntled middle class still groans under the weight of economic distress. Romney seems the very embodiment of the new haute-capitalist class: more of a shrewd manipulator than a job creator. As for America’s working class and poor, they’re unlikely to vote Republican this year or any year — unless they fall for the misty-eyed G.O.P. notion that America consists of the rich and the “soon-to-be-rich.” Of course it was never true, but something tells me it’s even less true today.