Romney will win the nomination, the question is when

Whenever Romney has stumbled or been threatened by Gingrich or Santorum, he opens the cash spigot.

American media loves a good horse race. That's why you see so much feverish debate over trivia. For instance, does Mitt Romney have what it takes to appeal to white working-class Republicans? The answer, if you're clear-eyed, is moot, because voters who are truly working class - earning less than $50,000 - are most likely to vote Democratic in the general election. Reporters and pundits covering the GOP nomination for the White House are already bored. No need elevating that boredom to ennui with the realities of class.

The only question is when Romney will secure the nomination, not if. Other questions - if, say, he will be worn down politically and organizationally by November - are big questions no one can answer right now. In terms of party politics, no one can conceivably catch up to Romney, and this despite supporters who don't like really him.

Of the 10 states in play on Super Tuesday (March 6), he won six - Alaska, Idaho, Massachusetts, Ohio, Virginia and Vermont. Sure, there's room for debate amid victory. For instance, he won Ohio only by a hair. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich weren't on the ballot in Virginia. Mormons favoured a fellow Mormon in Idaho. And Massachusetts chose its former governor by a landslide (72.2 percent).

Romney now has 415 delegates, more than the others combined. He has more organization; he has more money; he has more momentum. Of all the differences between this nomination and those of the past (and there are obviously many), the one fundamental difference is the rule changes initiated by the Republican Party. Every state is supposed to allot delegates proportionally to ballots cast for each candidate. It used to be winner-takes-all. If there was any question about who the frontrunner might be, that was settled by the time the first Super Tuesday came around. But that can't happen this year, because some states, like Florida ignored the rule and remained winner-take-all while others, like Georgia, now issue a percentage of delegates. Bottom-line is Romney is winning. It's winning piecemeal but it's still winning.

What's fascinating is what 2012 has revealed about the GOP and American politics in general. For instance, the curious case of religion. Santorum is a Catholic and you'd think he'd be a shoo-in among Catholics. No so! You'd also think Catholics wouldn't care for a Mormon. Not so! Turn all that upside down. Santorum is so socially radical, as if he were speaking for Pope Benedict himself on, say, the issue of birth control, that Catholics have flocked to Romney. Meanwhile, Romney scarcely talks about religion at all, even waffling on abortion. Perhaps that why evangelical Christians, who favoured Bush, have rallied around Santorum's orthodox anti-abortionism.

Another curiosity is the beginning of what could be a split of the GOP. I don't mean to overstate this, but it's true that Ron Paul is the Tea Party favourite, and his positions on drug enforcement and war are contrary to party dogma. He has, however, a snowball's change in getting the GOP nomination. Even so, Paul, who ran in 2008, is laying the groundwork for a libertarian insurrection. Paul is elderly so some are saying the beneficiary of his effort is his son, Rand, who rode a wave of Tea Party enthusiasm to become a US Senator in 2010.

Then there's the money. No one has even spent as much at this time in the nomination process as Romney. Not even close. I'm talking about Romney's coffers as well as those of the super PAC (political action committee) that supports him. It's called Restore Our Future and it is the product of the 2009 ruling by the US Supreme Court that said money is the same as free speech and so it can't be subject to campaign finance laws. Romney's super PAC comprises huge donors, spending millions on each state during the nomination. Whenever Romney has stumbled or been threatened by Gingrich or Santorum, he opens the cash spigot. Romney might be the first GOP nominee universally known for not being able to sell his platform so he buys one.

As I said, American media loves a good horse race (and who doesn't!) but that also means a certain degree of myopia when it comes to explaining why Romney can't warm the cockles of Republicans. A better place to find answers is the larger cultural and political shifts that have taken place since the era of President George W. Bush.

The last decade saw significant and radical shifts to the right while Bush was in office. He and his henchmen Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were able to force the GOP's rank-and-file to get in line. The rank-and-file are of course now the same people in thrall to the radicalism of the Tea Party ideology. But once Bush left office, that radicalism could not be contained. Add to that the historic election of the first African-American President of the United States and you have the making of a reactionary extravaganza that was the 2010 mid-terms.

Without a strong leader like Bush - or for that matter, an influential intellectual like William F. Buckley, who died in 2008 - that radicalism has become unbridled. Even House Speaker John Boehner, who could reasonably presume that the rank-and-file would get in line as they historically have done, cannot control his right flank. Hence, the reason the GOP's top priority since 2008 has been unseating Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, pity the poor quarter-billionaire. While the party was moving to the radical right, Romney, as governor of Massachusetts from 2002 to 2007, was busy achieving health care reform, which had been a long-time objective of the Republican Party (yes, it's true!). I kind of feel sorry for the guy. He thought he was doing the right thing for the party - being a moderate Republican able to accomplish a Republican agenda while running a very liberal state. I can see why people would think he'd be a good candidate in a general election. Too bad he didn't foresee that his main problem would be his own party.

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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.