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.

 

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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