Romney still can't light a fire under Republicans

Evangelicals and others conservatives are still tepid about Romney's candidacy.

Mitt Romney's foot is having a love affair with his mouth. Instead of basking in the glow of victory after winning Florida, the GOP front-runner spent the week defending remarks he made about not caring for the poor and that if the safety net were broken, he'd fix it. Those are two things you don't want to say if you don't want to be blasted from the left and the right. Liberals thought it was heartless while conservatives wondered if this guy is really conservative (answer: no).

Romney didn't say anything that dumb after winning Illinois but Eric Fehrnstrom, his top aide, did. He told CNN that his candidate had not tacked too far to the right for the general election and that the summer offers the opportunity to start over: "It's almost like an Etch-A-Sketch," he said. "You can kind of shake it up and restart all of over again."

In the age of the internet, never give the enemy a meme to use against you. Unfortunately for Romney, that iconic kid's toy was just that kind of meme, a symbol that's ironic, retro and suggestive of the kind of president Romney might be. Within hours of Fehrnstrom's comment, wrote Benjy Sarlin of Talking Points Memo, operatives both Democratic and Republican were shoving the meme down the media's throat.

"It seemed every political flack in the country not aligned with Romney's campaign had their own video, one-off website or stunt to hammer the message home," Sarlin wrote.

This after Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and brother of former President George W. Bush, gave Romney his blessing. Bush's endorsement was widely seen as the final stage in Romney ascent to the nomination. Basically, Bush was saying: Hey guys, let's wrap this up.

Too bad no one knew that a majority of voters in Louisiana would cite the Etch-a-Sketch comment in their decision to vote for Rick Santorum. In fairness, Santorum was polling so well in the run-up to the primary that Nate Silver, of the New York Times, gave him a 97 per cent change of taking the state. And Santorum's social conservatism has performed well generally in the American South, where he took Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Even so, Romney still walked away with some delegates. As you know if you've been keeping score, the Republican Party changed the rules this year so that delegates are supposed to be awarded on a proportional basis. That means no one really "wins" a state unless the state has chosen to ignore the national party's rule (winner takes all, instead) or unless the candidate wins by a huge margin of victory. Because Louisiana is proportional, Romney, who won 26.7 percent of the votes to Santorum's 49, still gets a percentage of Louisiana's 20 delegates.

What does Santorum's victory mean? I suspect that not much has changed. Romney still has more than double the delegates that Santorum has. Upcoming primaries, moreover, are being held in states that favor Romney, like Maryland, Wisconsin, New York and Connecticut. In fact, a win in Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania would be the final nail in the coffin, as it would send the message: I'm the man.

So the numbers are in his favor, but numbers don't mean as much in the general election. What matters are votes -- and Romney can't light a fire under Republicans. Conservatives have a history of getting in line once a nominee has emerged, but they don't have a good history of voting if they don't feel something for the candidate.

That's what Karl Rove, George W. Bush's adviser, worried about in 2004 -- getting enough evangelical Christians out to tip the scales in his candidate's favor. Evangelicals and others conservatives are still tepid about Romney. They may get in line, but more importantly, they have to vote. With exit polls showing historically low voter turnout in every state except one, that doesn't bode well for Romney.

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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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”