Sometimes all you can do is gaze in wonder. As of Monday, February 13, 2012, the Republicans had their eleventh new frontrunner – the one who would run against Obama and trounce him soundly in November, and return America back to the wholesome world of Ozzie and Harriet, and additionally a world where everyone gets to keep all their stuff, because taxes will now be a thing of the past, and the poor and unlucky will get Tough Love – mostly sneering that will obviously motivate them to get rich. Now it’s Rick Santorum. He’s the new frontrunner. But the number of ideal candidates who have come and gone is a little unsettling. The statistician Nate Silver has been keeping count – and hints that the Republicans have not settled on their one best hope because they’re overwhelmed by an array of riches. Something may be wrong here. These folks may not know what they want.
Looking in from the outside, Kevin Drum is amazed:
Back in January, before the South Carolina primary, I suggested there was still a sliver of hope for Rick Santorum. I probably meant to say that there were still slivers of hope for both Santorum and Gingrich, but my puny liberal brain just couldn’t get its hands around the idea that there was any hope for Gingrich. So by process of elimination, that meant Santorum was the only remaining chance for the Anyone-But-Romney forces.
Well, guess what? Lots of negative ads and the usual Gingrichian meltdown – it’s nice when people act exactly the way you think they’re going to act, isn’t it? – have, in fact, left Santorum as the last man standing whose last name doesn’t start with R.
And he cites the Real Clear Politics poll-of-polls – showing Santorum surging after his recent primary wins – and the latest PPP (Public Policy Polling) results which show him ahead of Romney nationally – 38% to 23% – with this comment:
Part of the reason for Santorum’s surge is his own high level of popularity. 64% of voters see him favorably to only 22% with a negative one. But the other, and maybe more important, reason is that Republicans are significantly souring on both Romney and Gingrich. Romney’s favorability is barely above water at 44/43, representing a 23 point net decline from our December national poll when he was +24 (55/31). Gingrich has fallen even further. A 44% plurality of GOP voters now holds a negative opinion of him to only 42% with a positive one. That’s a 34 point drop from 2 months ago when he was at +32 (60/28).
The party rank-and-file may not think Santorum is the next combination of Ronald Reagan and Jesus, but they have soured on the other guys. It’s all about the negatives, not the positives, and Drum adds this:
So what happens now that both the national spotlight and Romney’s millions are turned on Santorum like the eye of Sauron? Nothing good, I imagine. Alternatively, maybe he really does have a chance, and Republicans have made up their minds to stage a nostalgic revival of 1964. The mind reels.
Well, Romney does have a ton of money, and Santorum does not, so with Romney spending ten or twenty million dollars a week on brutal attack ads, this could be over soon. But the Washington Monthly’s Jesse Singal is beginning to wonder how effective Romney’s inevitable attacks on Santorum will be:
A lot of the old Santorum stuff about to get churned up, the most infamous of it his comparison of homosexuality to bestiality, is unlikely to bother conservative voters all that much. His views on social issues could make him a semi-poisonous general-election candidate, but in a primary – particularly a primary currently starring Romney? Less so.
Peter Spiliakos, who likes Santorum in some ways, does worry about Santorum’s chances in the general election:
Take the whole women in combat thing. His point about group dynamics isn’t crazy, but he is just off. He just isn’t quick enough or disciplined enough to deflect these kinds of questions or make his point in an unalienating way. I don’t think the women-in-combat thing hurts him, but it is a warning. If Santorum is somehow the Republican nominee, he is going to get suckered into these kinds of culture war fights every couple of weeks. And this is Santorum being good. He isn’t that bright, he isn’t that articulate, and he can’t be fixed.
Well, that whole women in combat thing was curious – Santorum’s notion that the new Pentagon suggestion, that women could actually serve in combat, was evil and wrong – because you don’t put delicate flowers in harm’s way, and women are emotional sorts who might very well flutter and fall apart. You know how women are. And yes, a good number of women, even Republican women, found this insulting, and demeaning, and ignorant, and so on and so forth. The best you could say is that he meant well, and that he really isn’t that bright, or giving him the benefit of the doubt, he isn’t that articulate. Or maybe he’s just an old-fashioned chivalrous gentleman – or a Neanderthal jerk. Take your choice. The options are many. All might be true.
But he did finally clarify his initial comments:
When you have men and women together in combat, I think men have emotions when you see a woman in harm’s way. I think it’s natural. It’s very much in our culture to be protective. That was my concern. I think that’s a concern with all of the militaries.
Will Wilkinson was not impressed:
It’s really is amazing how far we’ve come in such a short time, equality-wise. Within the span my own lifetime, it was thought that women ought to be barred from the Olympic marathon due to the inherent fragility of the female. Now we’ve got Haywire- and an unreconstructed, full-on patriarchal, old-school Catholic, Republican office-seeker saying maybe women shouldn’t go to the front-lines because men are too hopelessly emotional.
And Caitlin Fitzgerald is having none of this:
Some men would have a harder time seeing women hurt or threatened in combat than other men. This is hard to refute. It’s “women and children first,” or chivalry, or manners; or on the flip side, it’s condescension, or infantilization, or minimization. Whether it comes from a place of honor or a place of diminution, and whatever you want to call it, there’s no denying this could be an issue for some men.
That being said… so what? It is incumbent on those men to be grown-ups, to be professionals, and to get over it and do their jobs. People adapt. Men will see women in different roles more often, they will become accustomed to it, the culture will change. The more common it is, the more normal it will become and the less of a potential issue it will be. In the meantime, we can rely on training and professionalism to carry people through.
But Fitzgerald said the key thing there – the culture will change. That’s what Santorum and his party are facing – and they don’t like it much. This is just a minor instance of that, and Andrew Sullivan suggests the larger issue here:
I’ve studied Santorum for years… He is easily the politician most hostile to individual liberty on the right. He believes states have every right to ban contraception, all abortion, and any legal protections for gay couples. He disavows any secular, Enlightenment view of America’s founding. For him, freedom only counts if you adhere to the current fundamentalist rigidity of the Benedict XVI church.
And Sullivan returns to this key Santorum quote on freedom:
This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.
Notice he explicitly cites the bedroom as the place where big government can intervene. If you are not reproducing as the Vatican demands, legal penalties are in principle possible. There is no public-private distinction. His mentor, Robbie George, takes the view that in principle, the state also has the right to penalize masturbation with criminal penalties, a position flushed out of him in the Prop 2 trial in Colorado. The only reason the two would not actively prosecute gay couples for having sex or straight couples for using condoms is for prudential reasons: it’s not practical. But in theory, they’d have the Catholic Church’s most reactionary elements dictating your freedoms.
So now we have a new and unusual frontrunner:
If you believe in individual freedom, this country has no greater opponent than Rick Santorum. And for three years, the GOP has tried to tell us that the Tea Party was about extending freedom and ending debt rather than extending the power of Christianist Big Government. We know better now.
And the once-mighty have now fallen:
Gingrich is doing everything he can to raise money to stay in the race. He is traveling to California on Monday to raise cash even though the state doesn’t vote until June. The campaign told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that Gingrich will hold eight closed-door fundraisers over the next three days, and Gingrich plans fundraising stops in Texas, Tennessee, New York, and Georgia over the next week. Money is crucial for Gingrich heading into the Super Tuesday primaries, where the geographical diversity of the states makes shoestring campaigning tough.
And the National Review has just urged Gingrich to step aside, although at Business Insider, Michael Brendan Dougherty sees no need for that:
It’s not clear to me that the argument for dropping out is persuasive. Gingrich is still polling well in Southern states, and once we get more Republican debates, he could reassert himself again. His campaign is currently choking without media oxygen.
But Sullivan adds this:
I want him to stay in for a bit for entertainment’s sake. But I think Santorum more accurately reflects the militarist, big government Christianism that is at the heart of the current GOP. He believes what “Romney” “claims” to “believe.” And in some ways, I think a Santorum victory would so marginalize the GOP it might just begin to edge back to sanity. He might do better in the South if he can leverage the contraception issue – which seems now to have more traction with evangelicals than Catholics.
But that’s far from sanity. Something is wrong here, and the New York Time’s Paul Krugman takes a stab at explaining it:
Mitt Romney has a gift for words – self-destructive words. On Friday he did it again, telling the Conservative Political Action Conference that he was a “severely conservative governor.”
As Molly Ball of The Atlantic pointed out, Mr. Romney “described conservatism as if it were a disease.” Indeed. Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, provided a list of words that most commonly follow the adverb “severely”; the top five, in frequency of use, are disabled, depressed, ill, limited and injured.
That’s clearly not what Mr. Romney meant to convey. Yet if you look at the race for the GOP presidential nomination, you have to wonder whether it was a Freudian slip. For something has clearly gone very wrong with modern American conservatism.
Something is not quite right with the right, and as for Santorum’s famous remarks about homosexuality, incest and bestiality, Krugman say Santorum’s strangeness runs deeper than that:
For example, last year Mr. Santorum made a point of defending the medieval Crusades against the “American left who hates Christendom.” Historical issues aside (hey, what are a few massacres of infidels and Jews among friends?), what was this doing in a 21st-century campaign?
Nor is this only about sex and religion: he has also declared that climate change is a hoax, part of a “beautifully concocted scheme” on the part of “the left” to provide “an excuse for more government control of your life.” You may say that such conspiracy-theorizing is hardly unique to Mr. Santorum, but that’s the point: tinfoil hats have become a common, if not mandatory, GOP fashion accessory.
And there’s Ron Paul, with “the racist and conspiracy-minded newsletters published under his name” and his position “that both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act were mistakes.”
But he polls weak. A large segment of his party’s base is comfortable with all that – all that was once at the extreme fringe. But you cannot overlook the likely Republican nominee:
Finally, there’s Mr. Romney, who will probably get the nomination despite his evident failure to make an emotional connection with, well, anyone. The truth, of course, is that he was not a “severely conservative” governor. His signature achievement was a health reform identical in all important respects to the national reform signed into law by President Obama four years later. And in a rational political world, his campaign would be centered on that achievement.
But Mr. Romney is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, and whatever his personal beliefs may really be – if, indeed, he believes anything other than that he should be president – he needs to win over primary voters who really are severely conservative in both his intended and unintended senses.
So now he can’t run on his record in office, and his business career is now seen as that of a nasty and unbelievably rich vulture-capitalist, who ruined companies and lives for profit, and then sneaked out of paying most any taxes. So he has to fall back on other means to win his party’s nomination:
Instead, his stump speeches rely almost entirely on fantasies and fabrications designed to appeal to the delusions of the conservative base. No, President Obama isn’t someone who “began his presidency by apologizing for America,” as Mr. Romney declared, yet again, a week ago. But this “Four-Pinocchio Falsehood,” as the Washington Post Fact Checker puts it, is at the heart of the Romney campaign.
And Krugman now wonders how American conservatism ended up “so detached from, indeed at odds with, facts and rationality” – which wasn’t always so. And he offers this:
My short answer is that the long-running con game of economic conservatives and the wealthy supporters they serve finally went bad.
For decades the GOP has won elections by appealing to social and racial divisions, only to turn after each victory to deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy – a process that reached its epitome when George W. Bush won re-election by posing as America’s defender against gay married terrorists, then announced that he had a mandate to privatize Social Security.
Over time, however, this strategy created a base that really believed in all the hokum – and now the party elite has lost control.
So the current Republican field, such as it is, is no accident:
Economic conservatives played a cynical game, and now they’re facing the blowback, a party that suffers from “severe” conservatism in the worst way. And the malady may take many years to cure.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s out of our hands. Now we just watch, and get jerked around, and Bill Moyers explains why:
Mitt Romney’s hedge fund pals Robert Mercer, John Paulson, Julian Robertson and Paul Singer – each of whom has ponied up a million or more for the Super PAC called “Restore Our Future” – as in, “Give us back the go-go days, when predators ruled Wall Street like it was Jurassic Park.”
Then there’s casino boss Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, fiercely pro-Israel and anti-President Obama’s Mideast policy. Initially, they placed their bets on Newt Gingrich, who says on his first day in office he’d move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a decision that would thrill the Adelsons, but infuriate Palestinians and the rest of the Muslim world. Together, the Adelsons have contributed ten million to Newt’s “Winning Our Future” Super PAC.
Cowboy billionaire Foster Friess, a born-again Christian who made his fortune herding mutual funds instead of cattle, has been bankrolling the “Red White and Blue Fund” Super PAC of Rick Santorum, with whom he shares a social right-wing agenda. Dark horse Ron Paul has relied on the kindness of PayPal founder Peter Thiel, a like-minded libertarian in favor of the smallest government possible, who gave $900,000 to Paul’s “Endorse Liberty” Super PAC. Hollywood’s Jeffrey Katzenberg has so far emptied his wallet to the tune of a cool two million for the pro-Obama Super PAC, “Priorities USA Action.”
President Obama – who kept his distance from Priorities USA Action and used to call the money unleashed by Citizens United a “threat to democracy” – has declared if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. He urges his wealthy supporters to please go ahead and back the Super PAC.
It seems a handful of billionaires will finance everything and decide this for us, for good reason:
These gargantuan Super PAC contributions are not an end in themselves. They are the means to gain control of government – and the nation state – for a reason. The French writer and economist Frederic Bastiat said it plainly: “When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living in society, they create for themselves, in the course of time, a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”
That’s what the Super PACs are bidding on. For the rest of us, the ship may already have sailed.
So the right can’t find the right Mister Right. That really is appalling. But there’s no need to worry. One will be purchased for them. Some batshit-crazy billionaire will throw thirty or forty million, or far more, at whoever shares his own personal craziness, or who can be used for its ends. Yes, Santorum is beyond odd and Romney is hopelessly vague and without enough conviction to even lie convincingly. Of course – and now Gingrich doesn’t matter, and Ron Paul never did. This is a mess.
But Santorum leads now. And his party may have gone off the rails. And Santorum would be dangerous if he mattered, but he doesn’t. We’ll just have to see what the dozen or so billionaires have in mind for us.