Romney wins Florida but the battle is far from over

We may see a winner as late as March if candidates other than Romney don't run out of money first.

It used to be that if you won Florida, New Hampshire and (almost) Iowa, you'd be a shoo-in for the Grand Old Party's presidential nomination. But the Republican Party changed the rules this year so that even runners-up like Newt Gingrich can take a percentage of the number of delegates needed. It's why Gingrich, who won nearly 32 percent of the votes to Romney's 46, can say with confidence that he's going to run in every state in the union. We may see a winner as late as March if candidates other than Romney don't run out of money first.

The changes to those rules also mean that Republicans have a chance to tear each other apart for much longer than in the past. And Romney and Gingrich have sharper claws than most. Over 90 percent of TV ads in Florida were negative. Most of those came from Romney's camp, which had to win decisively after losing to Gingrich in South Carolina, and all of them are the result of the US Supreme Court's 2010 ruling that said spending money on politics is the same thing as freedom of speech.

The big news is that a crack that emerged after South Carolina is now widening. While Romney appeals to mainstream Republicans, Gingrich is courting the party's right wing. In exit polls, voters describing themselves as "very conservative" or supporters of the Tea Party got behind Gingrich. Conversely, four in 10 voters still don't think Romney is conservative enough. This likely stems from his past as governor of Massachusetts, a dependably liberal state, where Romney ushered in universal health care, aka "Romneycare."

A lot has been said about Ron Paul, the classical libertarian, and the viability of his forming a third party. But Gingrich might turn out to be the choice to lead such an insurgency. He will likely do well in the American South, where his dog-whistle tactics earn him praise, and establishment Republicans hate him. Matt Drudge, the conservative behind the Drudge Report, devoted more negative stories about Gingrich than to any other candidate. Gingrich, who loves to play the victim, could parlay that into a possible underdog strategy.

Surprisingly, voters worried about Romney's conservative credentials don't seem worried about his Mormonism. In fact, Romney's religion thus far has been a non-issue, even for Gingrich, who appears to have no scruples when it comes to attacking rivals. On primary day, he even said Romney, as governor, had barred Holocaust survivors on public assistance from eating kosher.

As Rick Perlstein wrote in Rolling Stone, Republicans have a history of changing their religious beliefs to suit their political circumstances, and that the rank and file know how to fall in line. In 2008, John McCain failed a similar purity test, but then the entire political machine got behind him when he won the nomination. This may happen again with Romney even though he's tepid on issues mattering most to Tea Party conservatives, like federal deficits and immigration.

Romney lost South Carolina in part because he was thinking about President Obama. He corrected course in Florida, where we saw the former private-equity executive do a little mud-slinging. It worked, and it may keep working, and this is the central difference between now and four years ago. In 2008, two establishment guys, Romney and McCain, took pains to avoid wounding each other before the big fight. With Gingrich, none of that matters. He taught Washington to get nasty. With him, and these new party rules, we're going to this get a whole lot nastier.

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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage