It’s cosmic, or theological, or something. In the column on the Super Tuesday primaries the joke was that those primaries and caucuses in twenty or more states and American Samoa occurred on Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras with all its senseless partying, and no one much knew what to make of it all on Ash Wednesday, the following day when Lent began, when you admit you know nothing and do penance. You had your wild party followed by humble befuddlement. You had to love the symbolism. Even those of us who are indifferent to religion found that amusing.
But then Thursday, February 7, was the start of the Chinese New Year – this one is 4706, this year being the Year of the Rat. The rat is the bringer and protector of material prosperity but also associated with war, pestilence and atrocities. But putting James Cagney’s words aside, you can say some good things:
In Chinese, the Rat is respected and considered a courageous, enterprising person. People born in the Year of Rat are clever and bright, sociable and family-minded. They have broad interests and strong ability in adapting to the environment and able to react adequately to any changes.
They are gifted in many ways and have an easy going manner. They are active and pleasant, tactful and fantastic, and are able to grasp opportunities. They seem to have interests in everything and hope to participate in doing it and usually do it very well.
Okay, you do start thinking of Mitt Romney, the Mormon millionaire oozing managerial competence from every pore, certainly enterprising, and expert at adapting to the environment. And he was more than able to react adequately to any changes. That was the rap on him – he would become anything necessary to get the Republican nomination, renounce former positions and say he never was what the documentary evidence clearly demonstrated he was. And he was certainly family-minded, in that Mormon way with the five sons and all. Add that his actual first name is not Mitt – it’s Willard, the name of the title character in the 1971 movie, the fellow whose rat, Ben, is so important to him (everyone know the odd love song from that creepy film). It all fits.
And Romney was seen by many of the conservatives as bringer and protector of material prosperity – he was an absurdly successful businessman who would fix things in Washington for the money people, shutting down social programs and keeping the tax breaks for the wealthy in place. And he was also associated with war – he said he’d double the size of Guantanamo and had no problem with torture and locking up anyone at all without charges forever. He was, then, a real rat, given the Chinese zodiac. He had been the governor of notoriously liberal Massachusetts, pro-choice, in favor of gay rights, presiding over a version of universal healthcare there – and then said he was just kidding back them. Maybe he was a rat in a few other senses of the word. No matter, he was the answer to the pesky maverick McCain – the man who voted against favored conservative programs over and over, who wanted to be humane about illegal immigrants, and who defied George Bush himself from time to time. McCain wouldn’t do – he was disloyal. And Romney was the answer to the goofy and affable Huckabee, the fellow running on about God’s will all the time. Romney was, if anything, much better connected to this world, not the next.
But on Chinese New Year, the day that marked the start of the Year of the Rat, Romney, the man who personifies all the rat attributes, walked into the most important gathering of ultra-conservatives, the big meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), and announced he was suspending his campaign – in effect, he was quitting. The crowd was up in arms, protesting, and you can image more than one of them muttering the famous James Cagney line – “You dirty rat!” Again, it all fits.
He didn’t have the votes in the primaries – McCain had most of those, and Huckabee a sizable chunk. And as he had made a fortune in the business world managing risk and return, he saw that there was no way, mathematically, he could win. He had invested sixty million of his own money in this and you don’t throw good money after bad – he’s no fool. Perhaps his wife told him his hobby had gotten a bit out of hand, or his kids started whining about their dwindling inheritance, but probably not. It looked like a dispassionate business decision. Check with your Chinese friends. They’d understand. He’s a rat.
The Boston Globe headline was as expected – Romney exits stage right, as a conservative. They know the guy up in those parts. He does what he must, and says what he must. It’s just business.
That means McCain is the nominee, however much the conservatives and the authoritarian loyalists despise the man. On Ash Wednesday both Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh announced that if McCain were the Republican nominee, they would boycott him, whatever that meant, and on the day the Year of the Rat started, Limbaugh was toying with the idea of raising money for Hillary Clinton, as he feared Obama was too damned popular and reasonable, so Obama had to be stopped, or something – Limbaugh confuses many of us. Maybe you can figure this out.
And Fox News was at it again – as with Arlen Specter, a Republican, when he had a problem with the administration’s wiretapping stuff, and congressman Mark Foley, a Republican, when it came out that he was hitting on underage House pages, the screen identifiers on their newscasts showed McCain as a Democrat (see the screen-grab here). Fox News does its editorializing with subtle flair.
McCain also spoke to the CPAC people, trying to make nice. He brought up the issue of immigration and they booed him. They were told not to. They did anyway.
Huckabee says he will soldier on, but there was Karl Rove on Fox News, his new home, with his little whiteboard and grease pencil scribbling numbers to show that it’s impossible now for Huckabee to win enough delegates to win the nomination. Perhaps God will intervene, but He may be busy elsewhere. The numbers are what they are – see Grabel’s Law: Two is not equal to three, not even for large values of two. There was, of course, this – Huckabee to get evangelical leader’s nod. James Dobson who vowed he would never, ever lift a finger to help John McCain, will endorse Huckabee – but James Dobson is not God. So it’s all over.
As for what happened with Romney, and what it all means, John Dickerson, Slate’s chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail, the book about his famous political reporter mother, offers Mitt Out of Luck. He makes some key points:
The most polished and tidy candidate of the 2008 race has now left a contest that has come to be defined by its unpredictability. For a party that has had such tough political luck and still remains divided, it’s time to delight in the fact that John McCain, the all-but-nominee, can spend his time raising money, repairing fences, and defining Democrats while the Obama vs. Clinton battle continues. Democrats would have preferred to run against another opponent (though they’ve expected McCain would get the nod, which is why both Clinton and Obama have been targeting him in their remarks recently).
As so often happens when a campaign dies, Romney had his best political moment of the race while expiring. Republicans are expected to fall in line, and that’s what Romney did. “If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win,” he said to cries of “no” from some in the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.”
Yeah, it was a variant of elect-Democrats-and-we’ll-all-die. It was audience appropriate. It was also a masterful maneuver:
His remarks, which would have made Joe McCarthy proud, touched all of the right’s political buttons, in a way Romney rarely managed during the race. In addition to proving himself to be a stalwart Party man, willing to sacrifice his personal ambitions for the cause, Romney on his way out showed a singular focus on the crucial issue of national security issues. He helped frame the general election in terms of Republicans who understand the threat from Islamic terrorists and Democrats who don’t. It’s rumored that he is thinking about running in the future; if so, maybe today marked that beginning as much as this ending.
But Dickerson notes that Romney appeared to actually believe what he was saying. He wasn’t running hard on his business career and as the man who could fix Washington. He was with these people, and of them.
It all comes down to character, and as a piece in the Wall Street Journal noted, it has become clear from exit polls that Republicans were voting based on candidate character – policy positions don’t seem to matter that much. In fact, many have noticed John McCain seems profoundly uninterested in actual policy. It’s all about him – the war hero, the steadfast man, the straight-shooter who doesn’t care who he offends. The rest is boring. And he’s cleaned up on that.
Dickerson’s point is that Mitt-the-Competent has no game for that sort of competition:
Despite all the money Romney spent on ads and organization, including millions of his own fortune, voters just didn’t seem to like him. In the last weeks, Romney was supported by the full force of the conservative commentator corps, and voters still didn’t sign up. He was a PowerPoint candidate who was all points and no power.
Romney also suffered from being the only one onstage whom the rest of the field felt really comfortable attacking. If the voters didn’t warm to him, his rivals really soured. Giuliani and McCain had a friendship pact, as did McCain and Fred Thompson. Huckabee and McCain have been so complimentary you’d think they were already running on the same ticket. But Romney seemed to rankle the others at a level that went beyond competition. This turned into Whac-a-Mole in the debate in Manchester, N.H., before the early January primary, with five hammers and one mole. “He was a guest in the House of Conservative, but he walked around like he owned the place,” says a GOP consultant to one of Romney’s rivals. “He was sanctimoniously attacking others for positions that he himself only took recently. He was viewed as soulless and mean, quick to go negative, all the while carrying himself with this ‘Gee whiz and aw shucks’ demeanor.”
He was the rat. It may now be the Year of the Rat. It was not that rat’s day, however.