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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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle