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Works and Days

The 2012 Election Circus — The Acts, The Players, The Hype

January 22nd, 2012 - 11:52 am

The Latest Scandals

Taxes: What does it matter that Gingrich released one year of his tax records? Any candidate can prep them a year in advance. Were I running for office a year or two down the road, and were I cynical, this year I would triple my charitable contributions, cut back on freelance writing to lower my income, and trim my deductions — on the assumption that one transparent year would be proof of thirty out of sight. So to be fair, Gingrich and all the candidates, if we go down this full-disclosure road, should release the last three years of returns. If so, I suggest that Gingrich will have as many tax/income problems as Romney.

Women: The Marianne Gingrich Nightline tell-all was a bust. In theory, we must sympathize with her: 60-ish, without much income, suffering from MS, forced to watch her ex — now soaring, both financially and politically, without her and without apparent acknowledgment of her long support for his career that must now be evident in his success — with insult added to injury as Newt parades around a younger, more attractive third wife as if he were a perpetual honeymooner. But to hear her is almost immediately to wonder, “Hmmm, let’s get this straight: you are mad that Mrs. Gingrich III and Newt did to Mrs. Gingrich II what you and Newt did to Mrs. Gingrich I? If you were sick and penniless when he left you, so was the poor first wife whom you once replaced.”

I wish I could believe (because I want to believe) that fidelity is essential in a leader, but unfortunately history tells me that Charles Lindbergh was a better pilot and inspiration than his more moral rivals, that the wayward George S. Patton saved thousands of lives by his brilliance in a way the more admirable but limited Omar Bradley did not, that the randy Bill Clinton was a better president than the devout Jimmy Carter, and that recklessly promiscuous JFK was no worse and probably more effective than loyal Richard Nixon. But marriage has so many variables (the devout husband can be mentally cruel and indifferent, the noble wife can be a shrew, the publicly supportive spouse can privately forgo sex, the faithful husband can be lazy and a leach), and leadership so many contours (natural brilliance, rhetorical flair, stamina, courage), that fidelity in marriage simply cannot quite trump them all. Was the wonderfully devoted Harry Truman a better president than Dwight D. Eisenhower (who once or twice probably strayed with his chaufferess), and if so, was it because he never looked at other women other than Bess? In short, the ABC interview was a dud. It only confirmed that dragging out a 12-year-old story on the eve of an election told us more about the morality of ABC than of present-day Newt Gingrich.

Romney’s money: Cannot Romney explain that, to be blunt, he does not have, and does not need, a regular day job any more? And therefore he does not pay taxes on income? In other words, cannot Mitt say that he once was so skilled or lucky that he made enough to allow him in retirement to either sell assets yearly, or buy and sell from his ample portfolio and therefore be taxed at the capital gains rate? The same unapologetic defiance should apply to Bain. If one devotes his career to winning the good life from taking over, trimming down, and selling companies, and one is not solely interested in cashing in and others be damned, cannot he in one minute, Newt-style, explain why he is a sort of personal trainer that both profits and does good from beating the out-of-shape into shape, and that when he cannot work with the flabby and unresponsive, he moves on?

The alternative is the sort of well-intentioned stumble in which the viewer sighs, “Come on, Mitt, you can do it. Don’t apologize or don’t gloss over, but explain, your success!”

Newt Gingrich

Why his death/resurrection/death/resurrection candidacy? His so-called checkered past and shoot-from-the-hip binges ensure that, on any given day, something arises from his past (women, book deals, consulting, etc.) or he says something provocative that leads nowhere (dressing down federal judges) which confirms the general take that he is too unstable for executive governance — a charge buttressed by the fact that Gingrich has never run a state or a business. But then, just when the op-ed writers and worried Republican elders write him off, he begins his comeback by questioning, rather than merely critiquing, the entire liberal experiment.

So he attacks the nature of the journalist’s question rather than answers it; he rails at overspending but in an existential way that suggests it is a symptom of a deeper malady; he assesses his rivals in the abstract as well as the personal. That takes gumption and talent.

The effect on primary voters? Gingrich becomes their everyman. He speaks for the beaten-down conservative, sick of reading about D.C. insider politics, race-baiting, crime, media bias, or apologizing abroad, as if to say, “I am your idea guy, your own PhD know-it-all, the good D.C. insider on your side who knows how the bad works, and I’ll out-talk, out-argue, out-think, and out-emote the entire Ivy-League elite Obama technocracy.” (Though I am not so sure he would win a debate with Obama given the exposure he offers through so many claims of multifaceted genius.)

So how long can the wild Gingrich needle graph go up and down, given his uncanny ability to die and be reborn a thousand times? I’d say about a month longer when one of two things will occur. One scenario: He is so thoroughly vetted that no more disclosures can emerge and he stops expounding ad hoc on Newtology in a way that confirms an undisciplined and wacky nature. In that case, he has a 50/50 chance of winning the nomination, regardless of the current status of his funding, organization, and endorsements. Or, we will hear yet a new Newtism (e.g., something like another neo-Marxist take on Bain Capital), or yet another brilliantly unworkable plan that serves as a proverbial last straw on the camel’s back, and the voters collectively sigh that they prefer Romney and pray he is not Dole, Bush Sr., or John McCain, more convinced that Gingrich is a Goldwater albatross rather than a Reagan savior.

Newt Gingrich has a real genius for appearing erudite, wizened, and clever in a flippant sort of way on television. Where Romney talks in banalities and split-the-difference circumspection, Newt rattles off facts and figures about the Civil War and World War II, to lend perceived gravitas to arguments otherwise identical to the rest of the candidates. I can imagine Romney conducting a meeting at Bain, asking for input about a takeover, only to have member Gingrich give an exegesis about the Sherman Antitrust Act, not an in-depth one, mind you, but a 10-second reference before moving on to serial 5-second exegeses about Adam Smith, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln — with no effect on the issue at hand. The wide but shallow referencing is as impressive on television as it is often for no purpose.

I think Gingrich is a conservative, but he shares a liability common among conservatives of wishing to be considered an intellectual and in temperament moderate and accommodating — in short, an intellectual’s loyal opponent and praised as such by the liberal establishment, the sort whom the New York Times or NPR might once or twice treat equitably. How else to explain his commercial with Nancy Pelosi, his cap-and-trade/green affectations, or his support for the individual mandate? His ego knows no bounds. He may well through sheer repetition convince voters that as a Republican back-bencher he engineered the Reagan Revolution, ended the Cold War and then as speaker for four years forced a clueless Clinton to balance the budget on his terms and then by his own genius ensured the 1990s boom. I’ve heard it so many times and so assuredly expressed, that by now I half believe it.

Mitt Romney

By now we all know his strengths and weaknesses. He is the most stable and judicious of the candidates. He looks presidential; his family is Rockwellian. He is a Mormon who, after five seconds of seeing and listening to him, might as well be a Methodist. His manners and graciousness and personal probity reflect the best of the American patrician class: George H.W. Bush fair play, hard work, and noblesse oblige.

But Romney is up against a go-for-broke Gingrich, who at one time would probably not have been allowed into a Romney country club. That means he has to get gritty, but in a way that by now unfortunately is not his nature and will probably come off as preppy-surly.

Gingrich told everyone that he was the proverbial tortoise who plods alone unnoticed before winning the race. In fact, he was the hare who rushed ahead with brilliant televised philosophizing only to wind up exhausted in scandal and self-inflicted buffoonery, only to sneak back. Romney is the plodder, raising money, building organization, at any given moment incapable of saying anything that would win him or lose him 10 points in the polls. He is the proverbial 4th-quarter, play-it-safe, run-out-the-clock coach who sits out a big lead, and who knows it will shrink, but might not shrink enough before the game ends — and finally who knows that he must, and may have the ability at some point to, pass deep, but still cannot quite take the risk.

“Do not take counsel of your fears” lectured Gen. Patton. Mr. Romney, remember your Danton: “Il nous faut de l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace!” Otherwise, we have a replay of the doomed Hillary campaign.

Rick Santorum

I am not sure that he is the most conservative of the candidates as he attests. Paul made points that today’s Pennsylvania senator naturally promotes union interests, protectionist interests, and constituent interests that are perfectly legitimate, but easily caricatured as not all that different from his liberal colleagues. His early petulance (that went something like “why is this race so unfair that my sincere message is not getting out?”) has mostly vanished with his rise in the polls. Santorum is surely the most decent of the candidates; he has no apologies that his ideas on social conduct, abortion, homosexuality, and the family are more early 20th than 21st century. That appeals to conservative voters, even if there has probably been an illegitimacy, an abortion, or a gay person in their extended family. In the end he leaves you puzzled, perhaps hoping that his Santorum world of 1960 might somehow be restored, but bewildered at the very thought of how such a multi-theater war could ever be fought, much less won.

Ron Paul

For someone so savvy about the nature of the disaffected, why did Dr. Paul believe that in the South he could go on rants about U.S. foreign policy that centered around American culpability? Of course, South Carolinians would be receptive to arguments that U.S. expense abroad earned only ingratitude or was counter-productive; but when Paul suggests that we earned hostility on 9/11 by our foreign policy, did he not expect to be widely repudiated? (e.g., So the country that saved Muslims in Kuwait, fed them in Somalia, helped them against the Russians, and bombed a European Christian country to keep them alive in Bosnia and Kosovo had a worse record on Islam than China and Russia, who were not attacked on 9/11?)

Paul has an eerie ability to win over almost anyone on matters of debt and financial insolvency, and lose them in a nano-second when he turns to foreign policy, where he loses clarity and conflates American gullibility with American culpability. A conservative might think it is unwise right now to attack Iran, but he does not wish to be told to look at the situation through the creepy Iranian regime’s eyes.

One new development. I have followed Paul for years, but never noticed his crankiness. The more he is known to voters, the more he now appears crotchety, gratuitously negative, and surly — even if in small radio and print doses he once seemed merely eccentric, in a principled sort of way. Like Obama, the more we hear and see him, the less we find him personable. The suspicion never quite goes away, given his past writing and associates, that in private his views would be neo-Confederate, isolationist, and anti-Israel in ways that go beyond policy differences.

Barack Obama

While the Republican cannibals devour themselves, Obama took the last two months to slip through the most radical agendas of his presidency and all to media silence: slashing the defense budget, recess appointments in a non-recessed Congress, cancellation of the Keystone pipeline, borrowing up to a new $16 trillion ceiling, and playing the race card via Michelle (“angry black woman”), Holder (if you ask about Fast and Furious you are racist), and himself (the renewed “they won’t give you a fair shot because of the way you look” trope).

That all got no attention, but firmed up his base among greens, minorities, and big government recipients. Coupled with his near silence (one press conference, few public speeches) and Republican self-immolation, his fire-up-the-base strategy has earned Obama a surge in the polls and lots of money at his $30,000 a head, corporate-jet-owner fundraisers.

What a strange fellow: damning the 1% only to hire three-in-a-row multimillionaire “fat-cat” ex-Wall-streeters as his chiefs-of-staff, while he lives a life indistinguishable from those he caricatures. Obama brags of killing bin Laden, without the slightest concession that he employed protocols to do it that he once smeared, or that he got the troops home for Christmas, without a peep that he followed the Bush-Petraeus plan and not his own that once called for complete flight by March 2008. Poor conservatives: should they praise him for get-real flip-flops or damn him for his hypocrisy and the damage he once did as a critic of what kept us safe? He is a figure right out Aristophanes, a polypragmon scoundrel, a demagogic genius, who can bomb Libya without congressional authority, claim it was not military action — and all the while keep the Michael Moore left silent if not proud of their guy’s duplicity, while begging the right to dare argue that Libya is not better off without the nightmare of Gaddafi.

Will he win? It depends on the huge and ever-growing Obama ego. After three years, to hear and see Obama now is to be exhausted by him, to tire of his hope and change banalities, to be worn out by his mean-spirited racial and class divisiveness, to shrug at his hypocrisy about slurring great wealth while seeking to enjoy its fruits, to snore at the serial me/mine/my. Yet not to see or hear him is, apparently for many, to be satisfied in the abstract that a young, charismatic president who looks good and talks glibly is our postracial president. The idea of Obama is as fresh as the reality is stale. But can his godhead see all that and accept that he wins by quietude and loses by being himself?

He has no margin of error in the states that he most likely must win, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and Virginia, where the majority of voters are just the sorts whom he and Michelle privately despise, and now have ample evidence of the Obama antipathy.

Prognosis

There is a wish to cut and paste the flawed Republican candidates’ strengths into a composite nominee: Romney’s sobriety, Santorum’s conviction, Paul’s sense of outrage over debt, and Gingrich’s glib lectures about civilization—while pruning away their unique defects: Santorum’s self-righteousness, Paul’s otherworldliness, Romney’s Tom Dewey/George H.W. Bush patrician woodenness, and Newt’s tom-foolery.

Santorum and Paul cannot beat Obama. Romney is still the most likely to make it a close race; Gingrich possibly to win by a wider margin — or, more likely, to lose by an even wider one.

I have no endorsements, or at least not complete endorsements: I cannot vote under any circumstances for Obama and would not vote for Paul, but, for now, would find any of the remaining three candidates far better than what we have in the White House.

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