Thursday, February 7, 2008

And Then There Were Three...

I was going to write something about Super Tuesday but work and other things just got in the way. Oddly enough, it looks like, contrary to what people were expecting, the Democratic race (which I'll get to later) has considerably more drama left in it than the Republican race.

And now Mitt Romney is out of the race, leaving only John McCain and the longshots Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul.

As someone who's not even considering voting for any kind of Republican in November, I'll say that at some level I feel a little sorry for Romney. He has a history of competence in an executive office unmatched by any of the other candidates, and his record shows he'd be likely to place more value in capability than any of the other Republicans, which would be a welcome change after Bush. There's something to be said for genuine private-sector achievement, absent in other candidates on both sides and fairly a rare attribute among politicians, even in the business-worshipping GOP. I probably wouldn't like his policy agenda any than I like Bush's, or would like McCain's, but I think there would have been a better chance that I might not have the suspicion that he was trying to turn the conservative mantra "government can't do anything right" into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy as much.

But he had a tough row to hoe. Now, we just generally assume that politicians will say anything to get elected, but Romney over the course of his career has made that a little bit too obvious. You're not going to be able, the way the GOP exists in 2008, to pitch yourself as a Rockerfeller-style Republican when running for office in Massachusetts and then pivot your way 180 degrees and campaign on a hard-right platform and stay credible to primary voters.

And then there's the whole Mormon factor.

Many Evangelical Christians consider the Church of Latter Day Saints, even though they share similarly conservative politics in most cases, to be little better than a "cult." The LDS has what one could describe as a checkered history, but it doesn't make any more sense to blame Romney for the Mountain Meadows Massacre or some of the very strange beliefs about racial differences that once existed in Mormon theology than it does to blame the Spanish Inquisition on John Kerry. It wasn't a factor in Massachusetts, not just because Evangelicals are few and far between in the Commonwealth but because Romney never ran for any office as a "Christian." In that race, he was running as a manager, a competent technocrat who would provide something of a counterweight to a legislature dominated by Democrats on a seemingly permanent basis. It was a successful sales pitch to swing voters in the Bay State, a generally liberal-to-moderate set who tend towards the secular and weren't concerned at all with the details of Mormon theology or where and how it deviates from that of other denominations and sects. Even if those beliefs and teachings were difficult to reconcile with the values of most Bay State residents, pointing them out to Massachusetts voters would have been of no help to his opponent and might have even created a sympathy backlash for Romney.

Of course, hindsight being 20/20, we now know that Democrats' predictable and futile warnings in Massachusetts that Romney was a stealth candidate for the far-right proved to be true in a sense. He got generally high marks for his first year or so in office, but then he got the idea that his job was a stepping stone to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Around that time, Romney decided that he was opposed to embryonic stem cell research, which of course doesn't serve a state with a huge biotech industry very well. After trying on a few different positions concerning legal recognition of same-sex couples, he realized that his sales pitch to Republican voters in Iowa and South Carolina required him to adopt the view that any such recognition would be a threat to Western Civilization. Illegal immigration was a plague to be fought - except of course when it came to the people mowing the lawn at his mansion. He decided that he was now anti-abortion, not that that was a huge issue at the state level in anything but a theoretical sense. And suddenly the most liberal state in the country was being run - when Romney was around, as he was travelling a lot - by a dittohead.

Running for governor of such a state and running a national Republican primary are two completely different undertakings. In the latter, you're looking to appeal to a group of voters many of whom are looking for someone who is a "Christian" who is going to govern as a "Christian." And in that specific context, having a belief system whose tenets state that there are additional books to the Bible found in the 19th century that reveal that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri suddenly becomes a problem. If that wasn't enough, Romney was of course on record more than once as having previously professed to hold liberal positions on some major hot-button social issues. Primary voters almost couldn't help wondering to themselves whether he was lying to Massachusetts voters then or lying to them now. And I suppose I can't blame them too much.

Regardless of what I said above, two things please me about this development.

One, Romney was clearly the darling of the sort of people that fund the Republicans and their campaign apparatus, even more than the departed and largely unlamented Rudy Giulani. The money men distrust McCain as someone more than willing to sell them out (even if he comes around more often than not) for some quick favorable press and dislike Huckabee's attempts, however modest, to redefine Christian governance as something other than a facade for their favored policies.

Second, it goes to show that money isn't everything in elections, since Mitt was by far the richest man in this race and had the most cash to play with. In many ways, he is to the 2008 race for the White House what Phil Gramm was to the 1996 race. Money will help you get your face on TV, get your message to the the media, and ensure that lots of people will see your signs. But just as that money couldn't make Phil Gramm likeable by anyone outside his core audience, nor could it get voters to overlook what they thought was wrong with Mitt. The parallels are numerous, from the outright purchase of the Iowa Straw Poll by both men to the endorsements by local pols that proved useless in the end.

Third, the whole episode may have exposed more fissures in the conservative movement that has grabbed control of politics and government and done a lot of damage that needs to be cleaned up. The candidate promoted almost solely on the basis of keeping the different factions of the movement together, Fred Thompson, fizzled. The darling of the Christian conservatives, Mike Huckabee, is still in the race but is getting no support from anyone else. And now both candidates heavily promoted by the money interests, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, were rejected by the base. The only major faction of the GOP that is truly happy with John McCain as the clear-cut front runner is the neoconservative foreign policy set, as he's even more in favor of preventative wars than Bush.

The Republicans seemingly have their candidate in McCain, and while the media adores him and he polls well thusfar against Democrats, he currently owes neither the religious conservatives nor the Republican money machine anything, and that can only be a good thing.

Stay tuned.

No comments: