How did the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan come to this? ‘Caught between a rock and a hard place’ doesn’t quite do justice to the profound ideological quagmire in which the Republican Party finds itself ahead of Super Tuesday. The delegate leader is an out-of-touch, unpalatable, super-PAC-fed, veteran politicker. The challenger and right-wing favourite is an outspoken, homophobic theocrat, more culture warrior than Presidential candidate. The republican electorate is hopelessly divided between moderate, college educated, pragmatic voters and evangelical, blue-collar, right wing tea partiers.
The most recent primary action proved to be less of a victory and more a disaster averted for the embattled Romney, as he decisively won Arizona and scraped a narrow victory in his native Michigan, a state he could ill-afford to lose. Despite winning the popular vote by a margin of 41 to 39 percent in the important battleground state, Romney will pick up fewer delegates than his Santorum. This is because the delegates are distributed based on the winner of each congressional district rather than proportionally allocated according to the popular vote. As it stands, Romney has a total of 163 delegates to Santorum’s 83 and Gingrich’s 32—not a margin as comfortable as one might imagine, given that next week’s batch of 10 primaries, dubbed “Super Tuesday,” offers a total of 437 delegates for the taking.
Romney’s eventual triumph in the race is by no means guaranteed; even his primary successes last night failed to silence the calls for a dark horse candidate to jump in the race, even at this late stage. The Republican Party has shifted to the right significantly in the last decade, and Romney so far appears simply incapable of garnering sufficient enthusiasm among his party faithful to seriously challenge Obama in the general election. The fact that he is struggling to overcome Rick Santorum of all people is indicative of how truly indifferent a candidacy Romney has run thus far.
How exactly have the Republicans found themselves in this predicament? As it stands, they haven’t been unified since they lost control of the Congress in 2006, an election that proved a fateful referendum on Bush’s doctrine of compassionate conservatism. After the definitive election of 2008, in which the Democrats increased their control over both houses of Congress and reclaimed the presidency, many a political commentator predicted a period of soul-searching among the defeated Republicans. Instead, the Grand Old Party unveiled a political strategy geared at simply getting Obama out of office by any means necessary. This cynical tactic involved purposely sabotaging the economy, instigating a near total default on the U.S. debt (and a subsequent credit rating decline), and voting en masse against any vaguely progressive Democratic initiatives.
Despite these negative tactics and a Republican triumph in the 2010 midterm elections, Obama and his beleaguered Congress just about managed to salvage the economy and began repairing the long-neglected social safety net. By most neutral accounts, Obama’s first term has been a relative success: he has made healthcare available to 32 million more Americans, has presided over countless foreign policy successes, and restored an economy that was shedding half a million jobs a month back in 2008. With the unelectable Rick Santorum winning primary after primary, Obama has begun to radiate confidence, shrugging off the austere, worried mien that has characterized him for much of his presidency. One gets the impression that he can’t resist rubbing his hands together in glee at each latest round of primary results.
Republican commentators have yet to lose all hope, however. They maintain that the election closely parallels the lengthy Obama-Clinton primaries in 2008. In that particular case the Democratic Party emerged unified despite the closeness of the contest, having chosen between two very strong candidates with few ideological differences. The current election, however, couldn’t be any more different. In this case, the candidates are so dissimilar in their policies, demographic support, and political experience that one cannot be faulted for wondering whether they are running for the same position. This is no fluke: the Republican Party has a long history of hotly contested and eventually fruitless primaries, in which the specter of the eliminated candidate has returned to haunt the nominee long after the Convention.
If Santorum manages to get the nomination, the Republican Party risks “pulling a ’64,” a scenario in which a divided party produces an unelectable right wing candidate. In that case, the highly ideological Arizona senator, Barry Goldwater, prevailed in a tight contest against the more moderate (and electable) north-eastern industrialist Nelson Rockerfeller, who was running on a platform of experience in the private sector, similar to Mitt Romney. Rockerfeller proved incapable of connecting with the core of his party, and they opted instead for the more radical Goldwater. In the general election, Goldwater was successfully portrayed as a bigoted conservative extremist (he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act) by his Democratic counterpart Lyndon Johnson, who won in a landslide with 61 percent of the vote. Goldwater was never able to extend his support from the narrow band of conservative voters that put him through the primaries. If Santorum does manage to beat the odds (which is not outside the realm of possibility), he will struggle immensely to attract independent voters, given his bizarre ideological cocktail of outright homophobia, radical Christian dominionism, and a repudiation of constitutional law—he recently confirmed his full blown anachronism by stating that JFK’s seminal speech on the necessity of the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up”.
Faced with Santorum’s fundamentally weak challenge, Romney ought to have had the primaries locked up by now. Instead, he has struggled to shed the baggage he incurred from his time as governor of Massachusetts, when he passed universal health care reform that would serve as a template for Obama’s later initiative. He has also taken a lot of flak from Gingrich and Ron Paul as wealthy and out of touch. Statements like “I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there”, do not exactly endear him to those affected by the economic crisis. Perhaps most significantly, Romney is quite simply very awkward. He has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to interact meaningfully with other humans—while Obama showed his swagger at a campaign event by showing off his baritone and singing Al Green, viewers gritted their teeth as Romney uncomfortably recited the words to ‘America the Beautiful’. In his victory speech yesterday he mightily confused his supporters by waxing lyrical about how the trees in Michigan are just the right height. A web search for “Romney being awkward” yields thousands of cringeworthy results.
Romney simply fails to exude charisma or any sort of presidential demeanor. Given the unfortunate tendency of American voters to choose their candidates based on who they would be most comfortable having a beer with, Romney’s awkwardness could prove to be a serious stumbling block. Romney will have to overcome these significant hurdles to get the nomination, and that will not be an easy task with a Republican party that is at its most conservative in decades. In this respect, Santorum is almost the polar opposite of Mitt Romney: assertive, supremely confident, unapologetic about his ideological views, and able to connect with the far right, he just might scrape the nomination. If he does, and fails to unseat Obama, the Grand Old Party will be due a serious readjustment.