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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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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