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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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.