It often happens that when campaign negativity reaches a fever pitch, a candidate will take a small step back from the vitriol and say something like, "My opponent is a nice guy—he's just wrong about everything." What they almost never do, however, is say, "My opponent is wrong about a lot of things, and if he gets elected, things won't be good. I'm not saying it'll be a disaster, but it'd be better if you elected me." The imperatives of campaigning lead candidates to spin out the most disastrous scenarios and apocalyptic warnings. And there's no doubt that some people believe them; you wouldn't have to interview too many Republican voters to find a few who sincerely believe that if Barack Obama is re-elected, within a few months freedom will disappear, Christianity will be outlawed, everyone's guns will be confiscated, and so on. But usually, presidential candidates—who know they must appeal to people who retain a grip on reality—try to keep these arguments within limits.
But not all of them. Ladies and gentlemen, Rick Santorum:
Rick Santorum won the Louisiana primary on Saturday by a huge margin. Despite the breathless media coverage, it doesn't mean much for the Republican nomination contest. What was true last week is still true now: Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee, and all that's left is for him to accumulate the delegates he needs to make that official.
As we go through the remaining primaries, there are a few things you should look for. The first, and most obvious, is what party leaders have to say about the candidates. With Romney the unofficial winner, party leaders will want to begin to move to the general election, but that won't be possible if Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul are still contesting the eventual Romney nomination. As such, you should expect influential Republicans to try to push the remaining candidates out of the race. Already, Tea Party leader Jim DeMint has encouraged the other candidates to re-evaluate their decision to stay in:
As the Republican party has moved farther and farther to the right in recent years, I've often felt that practical discussions of the effects of policy have gotten less and less important. The true believers who now dominate the GOP—and the politicians who feel the need to pretend they're true believers—are much more comfortable talking about the role of government than they are talking about how you solve actual problems, so they make practical arguments almost half-heartedly. Listen to a Republican talk about how they'd solve the problem of over 50 million Americans without health insurance, for instance, and you'll hear something like, "Well, we need free market solutions that don't infringe on freedom, because Obamacare represents the most profound expansion of government since Joe Stalin, and big government kills freedom…" Ask them why the free market will work better than government when in this case the opposite has proven true again and again, and they'll quickly move back to the level of philosophy, because as on so many issues, it's much more about values than about the actual effects of policies. I'm sure Republicans aren't actively pleased about the fact that so many of our people have no coverage, but they don't care deeply enough about that practical problem to accept a solution that in any way violates their philosophical principles (or helps their political opponents, of course).
Liberals talk in philosophical terms far less often, in part because our philosophy tends to be less inclined toward rhetorically easy black-and-white constructions. That's why I was pleased to see this, from the Obama campaign:
Mitt Romney is ready to shake off the GOP primary and move on to the general election, and so is most of his party. He picked up Jeb Bush’s endorsement this week, and even the Tea Party has been tepidlygiving its OK to the front-runner. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee is taking a page from the Obama 2008 playbook by getting a head start on general-election prep before the primaries conclude.
Even with his own sense of grandiosity, I doubt even Newt Gingrich truly believes a brokered convention is on the horizon. Mitt Romney, while still a weak candidate for the general election, is working his way steadily up to the required delegate count, and the leaders of the Republican Party—such as possible White Knight Jeb Bush—are throwing their lot behind Romney.
But Gingrich isn't quite ready to drop the line, and his reasoning for why a brokered convention would help his party has become specious to a hilarious degree. Yesterday he suggested that it'd help Republicans because a brokered convention would just be so much darn fun to watch. Via GOP12, here's what Gingrich said on CNN:
Like Greg Sargent, I think Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch gambit will work in the general election (though not so much if he’s elected president). Yes, his rhetoric is identical in substance to that of his opponents, but through tone and demeanor, Romney has managed to keep his moderate credentials, and few people within the mainstream media have bothered to challenge them.
Yesterday, I wrote a post sticking up for Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom on the whole Etch A Sketch thing. But in the 24 hours since, it has only gotten bigger. It isn't, we should be clear, "taking on a life of its own," because saying that is a way of excusing the individual decisions involved in the growth and spread of a meme like this one. The fact is that actual people—Romney's primary opponents, Democrats, and reporters—are making the choice to drop the Etch A Sketch comment, and what it is supposed to represent, into discussions, speeches, news stories, and ads. And at this point it's looking more and more like this is a metaphor that's going to stick around. Why? Let me offer some suggestions.
Republicans have been owning the energy narrative the past few weeks—what with Newt Gingrich’s science-fiction-worthy calls for $2.50 a gallon gas and Rick Santorum’s pockets full of shale—but now the ball’s back in the White House’s court. President Obama has taken a new tack on energy to compensate for the fact that voters blame him for high gas prices, but the change in tone is likely to leave his base squirming.
Karl Rove might end up with the bulk of that money (Flickr/Sachyn)
The Wall Street Journal caught up with Harold Simmons for a profile yesterday. Simmons—the Contran Corp. owner worth an estimated $10 billion—is primed to be one of the more influential figures of the 2012 campaign. He's not running for public office nor is he working for any particular campaign. Instead he'll be among the small batch of elite billionaires pouring vast sums into Republican races. Simmons told the Journal that he intends to spend $36 million before the end of the year. He's already spent $18 million on super PACs so far, easily making him the highest dollar donor of the current campaign.
Like Paul, I'm convinced that any candidate who doesn't support marriage equality will instantly be disqualified as a plausible Democratic presidential nominee following Obama. Acceptance for same-sex marriage is growing rapidly across all ideological divides, and is particularly pronounced among liberals. In an alternative reality where the Democrats had an open primary in 2012, Obama's "evolving" stance on same-sex marriage would no longer pass muster in the Democratic base.
The economic genius makes a point. (Flickr/Marion Doss)
A few times in recent elections, a debate moderator has said to the candidates, "There's been a lot of negativity in this race. Is there anything nice you can say about your opponent?" To which they usually reply, "He's got a lovely family." But the inability to admit that the other guy ever in his life did anything right just makes you look like a phony, or a jerk, or both. To wit...
With 435 spots at stake every two years, it can be hard to keep track of all the important House races. After a round of redistricting, experts are still trying to figure out the new political maps and how they might favor one party or the other.
One race to keep a close eye on is Iowa's Fourth Congressional District, which swallowed up the Fifth District (it was contracted out of existence because of a decrease in the state's population). Republican Representative Steve King, a favorite among the Tea Party and former best buddies with Michele Bachmann, is the incumbent in the race. He'll face off against the well-known and respected Christie Vilsack, wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; Tom Vilsack is a former governor of Iowa.
Mitt Romney speaking to troops in Afghanistan (Flickr/isafmedia)
No matter who the Republican presidential nominee turns out to be, this will be the first election in pretty much forever in which neither major party candidate served in the military. As a post-boomer, Barack Obama never had to worry too much about this question, since he came of age after the transition to an all-volunteer military. But Mitt Romney was of prime fighting age during Vietnam, a conflict he avoided with deferments for college and missionary work.
Let’s say that Eric Fehrnstrom is right, and Mitt Romney can reboot his campaign like an Etch-a-Sketch. In the fall, he runs against President Obama as a Massachusetts moderate—to borrow from Newt Gingrich—and wins the White House on the strength of conservative anger with Obama and public discontent with the economy.
In which case, who is the “real” Romney? Is it the conservative ideologue who—despite his public heterodoxies—won the Republican nomination by attacking his opponents from the Right? Or is it the Romney who made his way to the Oval Office by emphasizing his moderate sensibilities? For Salon’s Steve Kornacki, the only conceivable Romney is the former:
Probably not the Etch-a-Sketch they had in mind. (Flickr/Emily Kornblut)
As I've noted before, a substantial amount of the time the media and ordinary people spend talking about a presidential campaign consists of a discussion of charges and counter-charges about something somebody said, usually a candidate but not always. Not a lot really happens during a campaign–what candidates mostly do is talk, so their words take on an elevated importance. Each side tries to assert that the other's off-the-cuff statements hold the power to reveal hidden agendas and fatal weaknesses. It's all pretty silly.
And it isn't just the candidates. Even surrogates and campaign aides' words can be fodder for feigned outrage, as happened yesterday (and Jamelle mentioned) when Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom got asked whether his candidate would have trouble pivoting to the general election when he had spent the primary season pandering so vigorously to the Republican base. "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign, everything changes," Fehrnstrom said. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch, you can kind of shake it up and we start all over again." Predictably, Romney's opponents were all over it, especially Rick Santorum, who expressed his dismay.
I'm going to resist the impulse to shout "Aha!" and suggest that what Fehrstrom said was, from his vantage point, completely fine...