The more things change in the Republican race, the more they stay the same. Punditry had it that Tuesday’s primaries and caucuses would be conclusive, because punditry yearns for the conclusive when it can’t have the purely chaotic. “The beginning of the end,” was the result that commentators anticipated, by which they meant the final collapse of the final anti-Romney incarnation—as precipitated by Rick Santorum’s stall in Michigan last week—and Romney’s consolidation of the nomination. Forty-eight hours later, nothing is different at all. Romney is still the front-runner and the only candidate whose ultimate victory is fathomable, even as more and more he appears the weakest nominee of either party since the 1980s.
In February 1849, Brigham Young, the man who unified the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, declared that the black man’s color is the mark of Cain—the manifestation of the first capital crime, Cain’s murder of his brother. These days Mormon revisionism doesn’t so much contest as ignore Young’s decree, implying that it’s urban legend. What the Church can’t dispute is that until three decades ago, African Americans were prohibited from playing any role in the Church, and the extent to which they’ve done so since is minimal. Governor Mitt Romney, a lifelong practicing Mormon, never has been keen to discuss this, and one of the ironies of the last few weeks is that he might not have to, if his candidacy continues to deteriorate courtesy of former senator and Catholic firebrand Rick Santorum.
Unless there’s a psychic shift in the Republican Party soon, this past Tuesday evening the campaign for its presidential nomination became sui generis. On its face, the race conforms to the establishment-versus-insurgency template that’s characterized past contests, such as the 1976 GOP race in which Ronald Reagan nearly took the nomination from sitting incumbent Gerald Ford, and the 1980 race in which Edward Kennedy couldn’t liberate Jimmy Carter of the Democratic nomination, so he stole the party’s heart instead. The dynamic in both cases was that once the party dutifully resolved to remain in its marriage to the dour Gerald Ford or Carter, it had one last doomed fling with heartthrobs Reagan and Kennedy in order not to forget who it really yearned for.
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.
Although Newt Gingrich has dominated the headlines since Saturday night, what happened in the South Carolina primary is less about Gingrich’s rise than it is about Mitt Romney’s fall. The right's determination to find anyone other than Romney—illustrated over the last eight months by the hot flashes of support for Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain—has become desperate to the point that evangelicals supported a twice-divorced man who, by the account of one of his discarded spouses, aspired to manage a small harem. Moreover, they’re so frantic to be rid of Romney that they implicitly sanctioned Gingrich’s attacks against the former Massachusetts governor's personal financial gain.