It’s silly to pretend that those of us writing about the GOP nomination race don’t have a vested interest in a drama without end. This is to say that we have no interest in the resolution that the whole of the Republican Party wants badly even as its individual parts resist it. If the sheer math of the situation — only 5 percent of the delegates to next August’s convention in Tampa have been chosen — didn’t favor ongoing uncertainty, Mitt Romney’s mouth does; his is a fitful march to 1,144, with triumphs denied (South Carolina), won and then rescinded (Iowa), or won and then overshadowed (Florida) by the former Massachusetts governor’s comments about the very poor who will be protected by a safety net that Romney advocates shredding by way of Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan. No sooner this week had Romney strafed the Florida marshlands with his carpet-bombing character assassinations, winning the contest’s most impressive victory yet in one of the country’s three or four most politically crucial states, than he added to the Democratic arsenal of autumn, already stocked with bons mitts about firing folks and the politics of envy. At some point Romney’s declarations defy excuses about political inartfulnessness and beg questions as to whether he’s not saying what he means after all.
In Romney’s dream world—allowing that even the most phantasmagoric of scenarios won’t deter Ron Paul, for whom the campaign trail resembles the loop and cul-de-sacs of infinity—Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum would resign themselves to the inevitable much sooner rather than later, before Romney can do to himself what they can’t. Of course, the temperament of egomaniacs who run for president precludes this for the moment. But beyond that, Gingrich and Santorum have no sensible reason for exiting the race given the previously mentioned math and mouth, and now we’re at a juncture in the campaign when its true nature becomes revealed. The Democrats’ duel to the death in 2008, with its 51-49 outcome in favor of the White House’s present occupant, was unprecedented—an aberration because it involved two blockbuster candidates of historic dimension, with constituencies well matched in their intensity and support across the base-establishment divide. At the moment it would appear that Governor Romney will be spared such a conflict, his fantasies likely running closer to the Republican race that same year when John McCain was done with Mike Huckabee by spring, or even better the Democratic race of '04, when John Kerry dispatched with John Edwards even more bloodlessly. McCain’s crankiness and Huckabee’s idiosyncrasies aside, however, neither had the craven nihilism that currently seems to recommend Romney and Gingrich to their party, and Kerry’s dénouement (only a French word will do in the case of Kerry, of course) involved putting his opponent on his ticket. Amid the Republican battle’s increasing toxicity, such a Romney-Gingrich partnership is inconceivable.
Unless you count Barack Obama, the last successful insurgent candidate was George McGovern 40 years ago, when the anti-war movement’s most unimpeachable spokesman toppled the Democratic establishment’s ordained Edmund Muskie. For several weeks in 1984, Gary Hart’s futurism appeared poised to upend Walter Mondale’s traditionalism; for a few days in 2000 it wasn’t unimaginable that, in his first run for the presidency, McCain might displace young Bush the heir apparent. Time will tell, but the earlier nomination races that share palpable atmospherics with 2012 were the Republicans in 1976 and the Democrats in 1980: In the first, ex-California governor Ronald Reagan was handily beaten by President Gerald Ford early on in the New Hampshire and Florida primaries; in the second, Senator Edward Kennedy was crushed at the outset by President Jimmy Carter in Iowa and Kennedy’s next-door New Hampshire. Against pallid, managerial and “electable” heavy-favorites, Reagan and Kennedy went on to snatch from the jaws of defeat not victory but a rationale. Just as the numbers irrevocably slipped from him, Kennedy upset Carter by large margins in powerhouses New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and California, and Reagan so caught fire in the final primaries that he wound up losing at the convention by only 117 delegates out of more than 2,200. Both rebellions flourished because their leaders came to perceive themselves as representing the true core of their parties; and once the parties drearily attended to Ford’s and Carter’s inexorable anointments, they had the luxury of expressing how they really felt.
Romney isn’t a sitting president and hasn’t the power of a Ford or Carter, and Gingrich’s idea of himself as keeper of any flame is entirely self-designated, yet these are the roles to which they’re consigned not only by circumstance but by themselves. However, whereas no one of either party ever doubted that Reagan and Kennedy believed what they believed, with similar certitude almost everyone except their most fervent supporters knows that neither Romney nor Gingrich believes in anything. Both have built their reputations on this fact with a kind of perverse pride. Calling Romney and Gingrich cravenly nihilistic may be over the top — the sort of hyper-rhetorical adverb-adjective clusterfuck in which Gingrich himself indulges — but what’s incontestable is the utter lack of loyalty that either man feels for the Republican Party; Romney disowned the party when he ran for the Senate (against Kennedy) in the 1990s, the same decade in which the party went on to disown Gingrich. Does anyone actually think Gingrich or Romney would prefer the other over Obama? For the foreseeable future, one of the stupefying oddities of the current spectacle will be that the party knows all of this about both men and nonetheless chooses not to know it. The Republican race continues on the fumes of its own ferocity.