Romney is the inevitable candidate again

Victory over Santorum in Arizona and Michigan means the Republican candidate is almost unassailable.

Ever since Rick Santorum swept three states earlier this month, the question everyone has been asking in the US is: Why don't Republicans like Mitt Romney?

Notice I didn't say why do they like Santorum. Indeed, the socially conservative former US Senator from Pennsylvania has been surging, but largely because his winning -- if only symbolically, as in Missouri, whose delegates don't count -- demonstrated a credible conservative alternative to Moderate Mitt.

Because of this, Michigan, where Detroit and its famed automotive firms are located, has been the focus of superlative speculation. Michigan is Romney's birthplace and where his father, George Romney, served as a popular car company executive as well as a respected and moderate Republican governor. If Romney couldn't win with that history, how could he win at all?

Making matters worse is Michigan's long tradition of holding open primaries, which means anyone can cast a ballot for a Republican nominee, even liberals and Democrats! That exclamation point is intended to be cheeky but it's unclear how funny "Operation Hilarity" is. That's the campaign by the Daily Kos, a liberal political website, that feared a win for Romney meant an end to circus entertainment. By voting for Santorum, the editors said, Democrats can "keep the clownshow going."

News broke on Monday that perhaps the Santorum camp is taking Kos' hilarious cue. Democrats across Michigan received robo-calls asking them to vote for Santorum. A second round of calls went out Tuesday telling voters to support Santorum because Romney opposed the Detroit bailout (which Santorum also opposed, but whatever).

Surveys showed Romney and Santorum in a dead heat, raising alarm among analysts who worried the race was so close that voting for Santorum on a lark would bring the joke of President Santorum one big scary step closer to not funny at all. And Democrats would be to blame!

They can all stop worrying now.

Romney handily won Arizona, where he crushed his opponents. Even so, all eyes were on Michigan. For a while, it was too close to call, but around 9 p.m. EST Romney started pulling away from Santorum and by about 10:30pm, NBC and the Associated Press called it in favor of Romney. Cue the sighs of relief.

With 91 per cent of the votes in Michigan counted, Romney had 41 per cent, Santorum 38 per cent, Ron Paul 12 per cent and Newt Gingrich 6.5 per cent. In Arizona, with 73 per cent of the votes counted, Romney had 47.5 per cent, Santorum 26 per cent, Gingrich 16 per cent and Paul 8.5 per cent.

And perhaps now (though I doubt it) there will be less nit-picking over Romney's bona fides. The conventional wisdom has been that working-class and evangelicals don't like Romney, so they'll likely vote for Santorum, a socially conservative Catholic. But turns out that's only half right. According to CNN, working-class voters (defined by income) were more or less split between the candidates. And given exit poll data provided by CBS News, evangelicals liked Santorum, but Michigan's Catholics went for Romney, the Latter-Day Saint.

Some say even a win in Michigan is a loss for Romney because Santorum took the shine of inevitability off him, just as Gingrich did in South Carolina. Yet a win is more often, in the real world at any rate, a win. This shifting back and forth between being portrayed as the candidate of inevitability and candidate of collapse has dogged Romney from the beginning. Every time his opponents gird their loins enough to take a nibble out of the delegate pie, critics point and shout and say Romney won't be able to eat the whole pie! In fact he doesn't have to in order to secure the nomination. But whatever, now that Romney has won again, the narrative will also return to inevitability, with South Carolina, Colorado and Minnesota remembered as only unpleasant hiccups.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in English at Yale University.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician – and he’s coming after Donald Trump

Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision. As of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020.

“I like Bernie Sanders,” my four-year-old niece in Texas said to me last month. “Why isn’t he president?” More than six months on from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it’s a question that countless frustrated progressives across the United States continue to ask aloud.

Remember that the election of Donald Trump was not the only political earthquake to shake the US establishment last year. A 74-year-old, self-declared socialist and independent senator from the tiny state of Vermont, in a crumpled suit and with a shock of Einsteinian white hair, came close to vanquishing the Clinton machine and winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began the campaign as the rank outsider, mocked by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod as the candidate with whom Democratic voters might “flirt” and have a “fling” before settling down with Clinton. By the end of the campaign he had won 13 million votes and 23 states, and raised more than $200m.

In this dystopian age of Trump, it is remarkable that Sanders is now by far the most popular politician in the US – and this in a country where “socialist” has long been a dirty word. Increasing numbers of Americans seem nevertheless to “feel the Bern”. As such, Sanders supporters cannot help but ask the big counterfactual question of our time: would Trump be the president today if he had faced Bernie rather than Hillary in the election? Throughout the campaign, polls showed him crushing Trump in a head-to-head match-up. In a poll on the eve of the election, Sanders trumped Trump by 12 percentage points.

Democratic voters were told repeatedly that Clinton was more “electable” – but had they opted for Sanders as their candidate, there would have been none of the backlash over her emails, Benghazi, Bill, her Iraq War vote, or her Goldman Sachs speeches. So did the Democrats, in effect, gift the presidency to the Republican Party by picking the divisive and establishment-friendly Clinton over Sanders the economic populist?

I can’t prove it but I suspect that Sanders would have beaten Trump – although, to be fair to the much-maligned Clinton, she, too, beat Trump by nearly three million votes. Also, one-on-one polls showing Sanders ahead of Trump in a hypothetical match-up fail to tell us how the independent senator’s support would have held up against a barrage of vicious Republican attack ads during a general election campaign.

Then there is the matter of race. Clinton, despite deep support in African-American and Latino communities, was unable to mobilise Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition. Sanders would have done even worse than she did among minority voters. Trump voters, meanwhile, were motivated less by economic anxiety (as plenty on the left, including Sanders, wrongly claim) than – according to most academic studies, opinion polls and the latest data from the American National Election Studies – by racial resentment and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus. Sanders, who at a recent rally in Boston defended Trump voters from accusations of bigotry and racism, would probably have struggled as much as Clinton did to respond to this “whitelash”.

Nevertheless, Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision and I would argue that, as of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020. His support for greater Wall Street regulation, debt-free college tuition, universal health care and a higher minimum wage is not only morally correct and economically sound but also hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum.

The Democrats have a mountain to climb. They have to find a way to enthuse their diverse, demoralised base while winning back white voters who are concerned much more by issues of race and identity than by jobs or wages. A recent poll found that the party had lower approval ratings than both Trump and the Republicans as a whole.

Yet press reports suggest that at least 22 Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020. This is madness. Few are serious contenders – thanks to the dominance of the Clinton machine in recent years, the party doesn’t have a deep bench. There is no new generation of rising stars.

The only two people who could plausibly prevent Sanders from winning the nomination next time round are the former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The good news is that all three of these Democratic contenders are, to varying degrees, economic populists, willing to stand up passionately for “the little guy”. The bad news is that the Democratic base may fantasise about a young, dynamic Justin Trudeau or Emman­uel Macron of their own but, come the 2020 election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77 and Warren 71. (Then again, they’ll be up against a sitting Republican president who will be 74, behaves as if he has dementia and refuses to release his medical records.)

Bizarrely, that election campaign has already begun. On 1 May, Trump released his first official campaign ad for re-election, 1,282 days before the next presidential vote. Biden visited New Hampshire last month to give a speech, while Warren is on a national tour to promote her new bestselling book, This Fight Is Our Fight.

Sanders, however – riding high in the polls, and with his vast database of contacts from the 2016 race as well as a clear, popular and long-standing critique of a US political and economic system “rigged” in favour of “the billionaire class” – is the man to beat. And rightly so. Sanders understands that the Democrats have to change, and change fast. “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo,” he said in March. “They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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