The Republicans come to terms with Romney

The party is finally beginning to accept that Romney is the best it can do.

The big news last week wasn't that Mitt Romney will probably be the nominee for the Republican Party; it was that the Republican Party is now finally coming to terms with the fact that Romney is the best it can do.

You could tell the establishment was starting to warm up to Romney when former President George H.W. Bush gave his blessing, along with a host of other party heavyweights. Even Jim DeMint, the sage of the Tea Party wing of the GOP, said, without formally endorsing him, that "I'm not only comfortable with Romney, I'm excited about the possibility of him possibly being our nominee.”

Romney's sweep last week of primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia deepened the impression that he's the man. Even rival Newt Gingrich said, while reassuring us that his candidacy continues, that Romney is "the most likely Republican nominee."

Rick Santorum has the most to gain from staying in the race -- and to lose. The longer he runs, the more he can lay the foundation for 2016. But the longer he stays in, the more he keeps the party from focusing on Obama in the general election, and that hurts his chances in 2016.

So it's a balancing act, and perhaps that's why he recently meet with arch social conservatives like Gary Bauer, head of the pro-life group American Values who is a former candidate for president in 2000 -- to get some advice on what to do next. Bauer backed Romney in 2008, but only because he disliked John McCain more. This year, he's got a traditionalist Roman Catholic who appears to take talking points straight from the Vatican. Social conservative love love love that; too bad Catholics don't.

The results of that meeting are unknown, but it looks like the strategy, as it were, hinges on Santorum's performance in Pennsylvania, his home state. It's been said that Santorum is far too conservative to win a general election. Sure, he can win Midwest and Southern states, but not in America's so-called swing states, in which voters are evenly split along party lines. These include Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania. A win in Pennsylvania would go a long way to proving that Santorum is just the conservative Americans want. 

But some are advising him to avoid risking a loss in Pennsylvania. Santorum lost his Senate seat in 2006 by a wide margin of defeat. Even if he loses the primary by a hair, it could be seen as more reason to dislike his chances in 2016. Better to step away, some say, and rekindle this year's brief momentum four years from now.

McCain was the runner-up in 2000. Romney in 2008. So it's not crazy to think Santorum has a shot in 2016. You'll notice I didn't say 2020. Critics on the left and right are saying that Romney doesn't have a shot against Obama and that the Republicans should just pack it up now. The most prominent figure to give voice to this is TV host Joe Scarborough of MSNBC's "Morning Joe." Scarborough, a "renegade Republican," said last week:

Nobody thinks Romney is going to win. Can we just say this for everybody at home? I have yet to meet a person in the Republican establishment that thinks Mitt Romney is going to win the general election this year. They won’t say it on TV because they’ve got to go on TV, and they don’t want people writing them nasty emails. I obviously don’t care. I have yet to meet anybody in the Republican establishment that worked for George W. Bush, that works in the Republican Congress, that worked for Ronald Reagan that thinks Mitt Romney is going to win the general election.

That's not what you want to hear if you're Mitt Romney. But perhaps he doesn't care. According to a report in the Associated Press, Romney's likely strategy in the general election is going to be appearing like a moderate who can fix the economy while attacking Obama with ads. It worked for him in the gubernatorial race in Massachusetts, and he hopes it works this year.

Perhaps it will. What's telling is Romney doesn't appear to believe winning requires that voters like him. Just appear to be a competent candidate, attack Obama with millions in ads, and that should be enough. It seems jaw-dropping, that kind of thinking, and the kind of thing you'd expect from a former Wall Street executive.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks to supporters at an election-night rally. Photograph: Getty Images.

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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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.