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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.