Romney plays the numbers game in Illinois

In the past, whenever Mitt Romney said something stupid, his super PAC would come to the rescue with a money bomb. Attacking his rivals distracted you from whatever dumb thing Romney just said.

Rick Santorum hasn't had that luxury. First, he said college was for snobs. Then he dissed Kennedy. In Puerto Rico, he told voters to stop speaking Spanish. This week, he offered this arch-howler: "I don't care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates."

What he meant to say (I think) is that jobs will come when government gets out of the way of business enterprise. Maximum markets means maximum freedom, and the president's job isn't to fix the economy so much as empower others to help themselves.

Like I said, I think that's what he means. More certain is that Santorum does not have the money to cover his ass. Romney outspent his rivals seven to one in Illinois. Either Santorum needs deeper pockets or he needs to stop giving Romney gifts of ammunition

Of course, Romney pounced, saying that he's concerned about the unemployment rate (which is officially 8.3 per cent nationally; 9.4 in Illinois). But there wasn't much doubt that Romney would win. Polls on Monday showed Romney with double-digit leads over Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. The question was how big the margin of victory would be to win the most delegates.

The answer is a lot. As of 9:30 EST, with about half of precincts reporting, Romney had half the votes, with Santorum far behind at 32.9 per cent, Paul at just over 9 per cent and Gingrich at 7.5.

Romney has longed for a decisive win over Santorum. His victory Tuesday says he's Mr. Establishment, as one Bloomberg columnist quipped, and that he has what it takes to win over voters in the heartland, a perceived weakness that had formerly dogged him.

Prior to Tuesday, the mainstream media had finally woken up to the mathematical reality of Romney's almost insurmountable lead. He has so many delegates now that even when he "loses", as he did with Alabama and Mississippi, he still adds delegates to his pile. The media, which is already bored with this longer-than-expected nomination, will now likely start asking the other candidates with more urgency if and when they are going to step away.

And Romney will help by turning his attention to Obama. His victory speech in Illinois has all the makings of an opening salvo:

We shared the conviction that the America that we loved was in struggle and adrift without strong leadership. And three years of Barack Obama have brought us fewer jobs and shrinking paychecks ... "It's time to say these words -- this word: Enough.

Santorum's strategy now seems to be making the distinction between a real conservative and a so-called Rino ("Republican in name only"). On Tuesday, he said that he won in places where conservatives actually live -- in small towns and farm country -- not in cities where Democrats and Rinos typically reside. This, again, is an attempt to paint Romney as not conservative enough, but such a ploy misunderstands Republican history. Whenever a leader has finally risen above the pack, Republicans typically get in line even if they don't particularly like him. That's Mitt Romney to a T.

In fact, Romney's biggest problem isn't winning, but getting voters to vote. The previous record for the lowest voter turnout was in 1996 with 32 per cent, according to the Chicago Tribune. This time around voter turnout was -- wait for it -- 15 percent.

Former House Speaker Gingrich doesn't often say much that's either good or true, but he nailed it when he complained about Romney's money bombs. He said:

To defeat Barack Obama, Republicans can't nominate a candidate who relies on outspending his opponents 7-1. Instead, we need a nominee who offers powerful solutions that hold the president accountable for his failures.

Romney is running a numbers game now, but beating an incumbent, himself armed to the teeth with deep-pocketed donors, is going to take more than a numbers strategy. It's going to take charisma and that may be one of the few things Romney's money can't buy.

 

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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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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