This week, as the 2012 race for the GOP nomination swung into South Carolina for its "First in the South" primary, things seemed to come in pairs.
After long campaigns, two men -- Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry -- quit the race. There were two debates, each full of fireworks lobbed at noticeably amped-up crowds. At those debates, two veteran journalists -- Juan Williams and John King -- were emasculated by a vengeful Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was responding as one of the two candidates who spent the week in the hot seat: Mitt Romney for his dodgy responses to the demands that he disclose his tax records, Gingrich for new(ish) allegations lobbed at him by his ex-wife Marianne. (Which had to do with Newt's alleged desire to have an "open marriage"...with two ladies.)
And as Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Romney contended with the issues of the week, it became clear that the result of the South Carolina primary might hang on which man handled his controversy the best. As Jonathan Chait explains in his "Tale Of Two (!) Evasions":
Thursday night’s debate was defined by two questions, by the two current leading contenders, each of whom was attempting to define an uncomfortable line of inquiry as off limits. Newt Gingrich crushed his answer. Mitt Romney flubbed his.
Predictably, Gingrich's first question concerned his second wife’s claim that he had asked her permission to openly conduct affairs, and Newt replied with a categorical denial combined with a scolding of the media for stooping to the gutter. It was probably a lie, almost certainly misleading, and without question flagrantly hypocritical. (You can make a decent case that we should ignore politicians’ private behavior, but this is a man who led the impeachment of a president over an affair.) But it worked perfectly, because Gingrich simply took a firm line and refused to waver, and attacked a the GOP's common enemy (the media).
It offered a sharp contrast with Romney’s key moment, later in the debate, when he wavered over the release of his taxes.
Romney was actually booed by the audience, as if he'd simply told them he was an out-and-proud gay soldier serving his country with honor in Afghanistan. And this was despite the fact that his answer on this occasion was actually substantially better than the lengthy helping of word soup he offered in Myrtle Beach.
Of course, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul were on that stage as well, and the irony was that they had to work harder to get attention because neither man had a controversy du jour that brought the spotlight in their direction. It mattered less for Paul, as his campaign hasn't been competing heavily in South Carolina. Instead, Paul spent four days this week away from the campaign trail -- in part because he returned to Washington to cast a symbolic vote, but largely because the stakes for him aren't as high at the moment. South Carolina doesn't figure in to his long-game, work-the-caucuses strategy, and when all is said and done, he's likely to pull an impressive enough portion of the primary vote, relative to someone who didn't put up much of an effort.
For Santorum, the stakes are significantly higher. This week, after a long recount process, he was able to claim victory in the Iowa caucuses. On top of that, an emergency confab of social conservatives ended up anointing Santorum as their champion. But would these newly won benefits be enough to propel Santorum into the winners circle in the Palmetto State -- or even goose his chances down the road? And would Santorum's subtle effectiveness shine as brightly as the sparks flying from Newt and Mitt's clashes with crisis?
In the end, South Carolina looks like it's coming down to one of two outcomes: Romney weathers his income tax storm, wins the primary, and continues on like a juggernaut, or Gingrich's raging passions win over the GOP tribe, sends him to victory and -- as Sarah Palin desired -- the race gets extended. Gingrich is suddenly he favorite to win the primary this weekend. But beyond South Carolina, there's evidence that come next week, there could be a whole new race -- according to Gallup Editor-in-chief Frank Newport, Romney's support nationwide is in a state of collapse.
Naturally, this would have to happen in the same week where one of your Speculatroners rather confidently made the case that Romney had reclaimed inevitability. It just goes to show that the moment you make a prediction is the moment you'd best be prepared to be wrong. Want to take a shot at predicting the future for us? By all means, have at it, and for the rest of the week that was, please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of January 20, 2012.
It is really impossible to overstate how confounding Mitt Romney is as a frontrunner for the GOP nomination. For all practical purposes, Romney is 95 percent of the way to bagging this win -- and yet as he strives to close the deal in South Carolina, he looks for all the world like a battered, vulnerable candidate. His campaign is an awesomely capable machine, spending money wisely and lining up significant endorsements. And yet the candidate at the center of the campaign is nowhere near as surefooted, continually saying mindbogglingly daft things and dodging questions inelegantly. And Romney has been extremely fortunate throughout this campaign -- not that he's ever afforded the luxury of basking in it. As Jonathan Chait points out, Romney's amazing streak of good luck is very real: Mitt Romney's run of luck during the Republican nominating race is beginning to defy belief. Begin with the fact that Rick Santorum turns out to have won the Iowa caucuses. Finding this out now is approximately 0.001 percent as valuable as having it announced the night of the caucuses. There was an old Fed Ex commercial depicting an aging pool cleaner suddenly discovering a 20-year-old acceptance letter from Harvard he had never received, and imagining the life he could have had. That man is Santorum. He has to wonder if the Iowa vote counters were gay. Though, it should be noted, the worldwide release of the "Complete Campaign Burn Book On Mitt Romney," by "the 2008 McCain campaign" was hardly a fortuitous event. And yet, at the moment when Romney could really benefit from streaking across the finish line in South Carolina -- which would essentially win him the nomination -- the runner is stumbling, and the risk that the race will continue is growing, as Newt Gingrich swings up from behind in the outside lane to force a photo finish in the Palmetto State. Last week, Gingrich's attacks on Romney's Bain Capital past proved to be eminently survivable, as GOP luminaries who never did much in the way of showering Romney with affection rose in defense...of private equity, anyway. But this week, all of those attacks centered around Romney as his membership of an out-of-touch aristocracy took on a different dimension, chiefly because of a sustained attack on his waffling over releasing his tax returns. When Perry assailed him on the debate stage about it, it earned Perry applause. When Romney took to the debate stage again to try to answer the question, he was booed. And the matter stuck in the newscycle like a malignant tumor. Soon, Romney was having to answer questions about the tax rate he paid. "Probably closer to the 15 percent rate," Romney said. That's the same as a child janitor. The same number as the Congressional approval rating. A far lower number than any middle class family can expect to pay. And Romney opened himself up to further mockery when he said that the income he earned from giving speeches -- and who pays Mitt Romney, of all people, for his oratory? -- was "not very much." As it turned out, "not very much" is $374,327 -- enough to make 37 bets with Rick Perry. Romney was further staggered by all of the attention that was given to an additional exploration of his finances, and a battle his campaign had to wage against an ABC News report that Romney was up to his eye teeth in offshore tax havens, personally and professionally. (Though there was ample reason to suspect that ABC was over-hyping its findings.) And it surely didn't help matters that his proposed tax plan is designed to yield tremendous benefits to the already-wealthy. By mid-week, Chris Christie -- who as a campaign surrogate is supposed to blunt attacks on his liege -- was also calling for Romney to disclose his tax returns. Despite noting Romney's inexplicable luck, Jonathan Chait couldn't help but notice the way Romney was constantly "caricaturing" himself: Whatever the merits, the total self-portrait Romney has helped craft is utterly devastating: the scion of a wealthy executive, who helped create, and benefited from, revolutions in both the market economy and in public policy in the last three decades that favored the rich over the middle class, and who appears blithe about the gap between his privilege and the lot of most Americans. With all of that (and this!) in mind, it was particularly audacious of Romney to say that he'd spent time living "in the real streets of America." Ha-ha, but seriously: no. Romney is up big in Florida and boasts advantages in many of the contests that are in the immediate future. But if Gingrich manages a win in South Carolina, it will likely revive all of the old talk that Romney can't "close the deal." And so Romney remains, simultaneously the GOP's best hope as well as its biggest risk.
As you know, Newt Gingrich's opening gambit in South Carolina was to wage a scorched-earth campaign against Mitt Romney and Bain Capital, a move to which fellow conservatives did not exactly take a shine. Last week, he spent considerable time getting wounded with his own weapon of choice, and Alex Castellanos captured the mood of many when he characterized Gingrich as being in "self-destruct mode." Bain became Gingrich's bane, and his self-inflicted troubles stalked him on the trail through the weekend, forcing Gingrich to put some space between his campaign and his Romney criticism, just as it seemed it might have been beginning to work. But in a campaign season of sudden rises and falls, Gingrich managed to quickly turn the tide, and he's now ended the week within spitting distance of his first primary win. How'd he do this? First, he exploited a vulnerability of Mitt Romney that didn't require that he put the private equity industry on trial -- Romney's tax returns, and his unwillingness to disclose them. There, Gingrich was able to characterize Romney as an out-of-touch aristocrat while hitting him where it really hurts -- his authenticity and honesty. Capitalism could take a break from the bashing. By the end of the week, debate audiences were booing Romney's intransigence on the matter, trashing him for his "maybe" stance on disclosing his taxes. (Newt, by contrast, made sure that he rushed his own tax returns out at the end of the week. The second thing Newt did to get the base back on his side was to remind him of a common enemy -- the media. He kicked off the week by using Fox News' Juan Williams as a human speed bag (in fairness, this is the specific role that Fox has hired Williams to play), gleefully using Williams as a stand-in for the Obama administration and sneering his way through a litany of racially-themed dog whistles that brough the Myrtle Beach debate audience to their feet in rapturous applause. Newt knew he was on to something, and so he took his "food stamp president" argument, turned it into an ad, and then acted incredulous that anyone could have any reason to be insulted by his characterization. (Though the fact that Gingrich is cosmically wrong is a good reason why -- the increase in food stamp usage is a product of the Bush-era recession, not the Obama presidency, and food stamp eligibility is something that's determined by state governments, not the federal government.) None of that mattered -- Gingrich had an opportunity to play the alpha-conservative and he ran with it, adding some sharia panic and a deeply strange attack on people who use subways for flavor. Out in Alaska, Sarah Palin liked what she was hearing, and Gingrich's campaign benefitted further when Trixie Klondike went on the teevee to offer Newt a semi-endorsement. Of course, all of this meant that Gingrich was still running one of the nastiest campaigns in recent memory -- one in which he fundraised off the desire to punch Obama in the face. But now that Gingrich wasn't setting fire to the GOP platform by excoriating Bain with the language of Occupy Wall Street, it didn't matter. The nasty campaign was working. The national polling numbers started to shift, and in South Carolina, Gingrich's efforts wrought a massive turnaround -- with late week polling snapshots indicating that he was now ahead of the pack in the Palmetto State. But it was around about this time that Matt Drudge started banging his fists about a major scooplet coming from some network about some candidate. And it came out that all of this involved Newt's second wife, Marianne, and an interview she gave to ABC News' Brian Ross about Newt's serial infidelities. The big new disclosure was that Newt allegedly desired an "open marriage" with Marianne, so that he could continue to get his freak on with Callista Bisek. We'd argue that there's not a whole lot of "newness" here -- Marianne Gingrich made it clear in an Esquire profile that Newt had asked her to simply tolerate his relationship with Bisek. Though we suppose the term "open marriage" resonates differently when we're talking about a guy who stridently declares that marriage should be strictly defined as something between one man and one woman. For his part, Gingrich denied his ex-wife's account. And he had his defenders: Rush Limbaugh declared Newt to be the "victim" in the whole matter (terrible how Marianne victimized Gingrich by refusing to maintain the level of desirability necessary to claim exclusivity with the guy who took a vow to stay by your side until your death a few minutes after bailing on his first wife), and Sarah Palin -- perhaps prophetically -- predicted that Gingrich would only "soar" in the wake of the disclosure. How did Gingrich turn this problem around? The same way he began the week -- by eviscerating a debate moderator, in this case CNN's John King. King led off last night's debate with a question on the matter and Gingrich responded in a furious lather, torching CNN for beginning the debate with a question about his past marriages. As with his Juan Williams broadside, torching King had the intended effect -- it brought the audience to their feet in applause and approval. It was effective enough that National Review's Daniel Foster essentially called the South Carolina Primary for Gingrich. This time last week, that was pretty much unthinkable.
Rick Santorum should have expected to get a lift from some outside help and fortunate circumstances this week. He is now the official champion of the social conservative set -- who went on a retreat of sorts to hash out who would become their Not-Romney of choice, eventually settling on the former Pennsylvania senator. And in Iowa -- remember Iowa? -- the final determination from the vote counters was that Santorum had actually won the caucuses. That's a lot of good news! But Santorum wasn't able to capitalize on any of it, because the Iowa decision really came well too late to be of much use, and the social conservative support failed to move the needle in South Carolina. So, Santorum was largely left to his own devices to try to battle back and earn a good showing in the Palmetto State. It's perhaps fortunate, then, that this campaign season has proven that Santorum is rarely better than when he's going it alone. Santorum continued to aggressively attack his rivals without getting mired in the wrong sort of battle -- like Gingrich did with his anti-Bain effort. He hit Romney, saying that a vote for the former Massachusetts governor was tantamount to "malpractice," and underscored that with a brutal ad that depicted Romney as a figure far to the left of the GOP base. The tagline: "Why would we ever vote for someone who is just like Obama?" He went even further with Romney in the middle of the week, when he said Mitt was "somebody who is going to deliberately lie and stand behind those lies." And he continued to build the case that Romney and Gingrich had pasts that disqualified them from carrying the conservative mantle. Their support for health care policies that dovetailed closely with President Obama's Affordable Care Act was a particular source of dispute from Santorum. But it was at the debates that Santorum truly shone. There he managed to score points off Romney and Gingrich with deft displays of knowledge, debate strategy, and pure brio. At the Martin Luther King Day debate, Santorum became an unlikely voting rights activist when he elegantly baited a trap for Romney in retaliation for a super PAC ad that accused Santorum of allowing imprisoned felons to vote. Santorum corrected the record -- he believes criminals who served their time should have their voting privileges restored, and then caught Romney up with his own record as governor when he tried to dodge Santorum's question. At the second debate, Santorum succeeded again by bringing Newt's past -- as speaker, not as a spouse -- into the conversation, in a delicate deconstruction of Newt's own self-sustained mythology. It featured an accusation of cowardice, a mockery of his reputation as a "man of ideas," an added implication that Gingrich was perfectly willing to abide corruption as long as he benefitted from it, and -- as a particularly pointed twist of the knife -- an expression of worry that Newt wasn't of particularly disciplined mind. "These are not cogent thoughts," Santorum said, adding. "we can't afford that in our nominee." It really was the best case that Santorum could have made for himself. What matters now is if South Carolina voters, in considering who will be the non-Paul Not-Romney candidate of choice, voters remember his quiet determination and meticulous display of intellect, or if they get caught up in the wave of hype that Gingrich's big applause lines generated.
Ron Paul kept himself more or less out of the news cycle this week because he was not competing particularly hard in South Carolina. This of course, led many of his fans to gripe about how little attention he was getting in the lead-up to that state primary -- and last night, those gripes took on a life of their own when his fans at the CNN debate had to browbeat John King into allowing him to take a question. But when you are "notably disengaged" from the state in which the campaign is shaping up, that's what happens. Spokesman Jesse Benton is sanguine about it, telling Politico that the campaign's "focus was Iowa and New Hampshire, and then further downstream in Nevada, Maine, Washington, Colorado and other caucus states." What took Paul away from the action was a return to Washington, DC, to cast a largely symbolic vote against raising the debt ceiling. He returned to the Palmetto State mid-week, bringing with him the announcement of some new endorsements, and the release of a new ad that struck hard at Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich -- whoever gamed it out presciently reasoned that those three men would be the ones joining him on the debate stage Thursday night. Taking some time off from the media spotlight had some advantages. The New Republic, which has been on the leading edge of the criticism Paul has garnered for the the '90s-era newsletters that were infamously packed with racist, xenophobic conspiracy theories, released brand-new content from Paul's past as a pamphleteer, and once again, these were laced throughout with primo examples of paranoiac ramblings. But with Paul out of sight and out of mind through a big chunk of the week, he managed to avoid any more nettlesome confrontations with journalists over the matter. Paul did manage to make some news when he voiced support for nullification -- the idea that state governments should be extended the opportunity to "to nullify federal laws they don't like." Paul said, at a press conference, "I think [nullification] probably wouldn't be used that much, but our federal government would be much smaller than it is today had that principle been more clearly embedded in our Constitution." But as Travis Waldron and Scott Keyes contend, the framers very clearly embedded something altogether different -- the idea that laws passed by Congress "shall be the supreme law of the land...anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding." Of course, speculation on a possible third party run continues apace - despite the fact that the unlikelihood of such a run remains high and Paul continues to evince nothing but the unwillingness to do so. A Pew Research poll finds that "a third-party campaign by Ron Paul would clearly work to President Obama's advantage" as that "scenario" would play out like so: "Obama would receive 44%, Mitt Romney would get 32% and Paul would get 18%." In other news, Paul won the support of a brothel, as is his wont, so he's got that going for him.
For the past few months, Buddy Roemer has been holed up in a New Hampshire apartment -- his home base as he struck out across the state, seeking out handfuls of supporters here and there to give his campaign a fighting chance against the well-oiled machines he fought against, who were afforded the luxury of being able to put themselves in front of millions of Americans using the never-ending debates. Roemer's efforts did not bear fruit, but he seemed very sad to have to leave the Granite state anyway, telling one reporter that he "got teary-eyed thinking about leaving New Hampshire." But the road ahead isn't taking him to South Carolina: "We're on to Michigan and Arizona, to keep spreading our message and recruiting new supporters. In Michigan, we'll talk about how money in politics kills job creation. In Arizona, we'll discuss immigration issues and the effect of money on citizenship. But as we grow, we will stay true to our word. We will prove to the pundits that it can be done, with honesty and integrity," Roemer continued. "We've only just begun. What is obvious to everyone now was obvious to us more than a year ago -- this system is corrupt and must be cleaned up or we will never have tax reform, budget reform, affordable health-care reform, immigration reform, bank reform, regulatory balance, trade reform, real jobs growth, or energy independence. Right now, the special interests run government -- you don't. We can change all that." Nevertheless, Roemer went down in New Hampshire with his trademarked good humor on display to the very last, as people continue to discover his quippy Twitter account. There, he's borne the slings and arrow of outrageous fortune with an arched eyebrow, and people are starting to notice that the guy with the charming Louisiana accent and the desire to take on Big Money actually has a fair measure of -- dare we say it? -- charisma. And so, his efforts have allowed Roemer to claim one measure of success: The former Louisiana governor and congressman, who has struggled to attract attention for his presidential bid, said his progress in New Hampshire has given him a platform to talk about his top issue: the role that big money plays in American politics. "We were written off months ago. We're not being written off now," Roemer said Tuesday in an interview with The Hill. "We've come from zero to having a request for an interview every 10 minutes -- and that's a start for our issue." And in the coming days, Roemer will take his act to "Real Time With Bill Maher," and his equally colorful campaign manager, Carlos Sierra, promises it will be event viewing: "Since it's on HBO, anything can happen," Sierra said in an email of Roemer's coming appearance on Maher's show, "so expect Buddy to call out the other candidates by name and expose their ties to the special interests." All of this follows an interesting trend, where despite Roemer's underdog status, he finds clever ways to build alliances and seems to know where the action is at the grassroots level. Having demonstrated a willingness to share counsel with Occupy Wall Street when that movement was reaching a fever pitch, this week he joined the nationwide protest against SOPA/PIPA. In many ways, he's starting down the same path that Ron Paul trod long ago -- reaching out to organized movements of dissatisfied voters, connecting broadly with internet culture, and working on becoming a figure that your late-night political comedy show audiences recognize and enjoy. (Interestingly enough, Roemer is benefitting from the attention being given to Stephen Colbert's satiric South Carolina "campaign" -- this week, an old Colbert super PAC ad, cut months ago, was finally noticed and picked up by influential web-culture curator Boing Boing, goosing its virality.)
Fred Karger based the bulk of his presidential effort in New Hampshire, and with that primary in the books, it's time to move on. But some things never change, and for Karger, that's the constant battle to get included on the debate stage. This week, he beseeched CNN and the Southern Republican Leadership Conference to allow him to participate: The overwhelming majority of Republican primary debates have included eight candidates. The New Hampshire Primary has proved that I am currently one of the top eight candidates in the 2012 Republican presidential primary. I beat Michele Bachmann by 40%. Congresswoman Bachmann was in 12 national debates, raised $10 to $12 million, received massive news coverage, has huge name ID and we beat her in New Hampshire. I have scored 2% or 1% in more than a dozen national polls that have included me and have tied Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry and beat Rick Santorum in many of these. That is correct; I have tied all of my Republican presidential primary opponents in methodologically sound polls of primary voters except for Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. I am now only one of seven Republicans actively running for president who will appear on Michigan's GOP ballot in February, Puerto Rico's in March and Maryland's ballot in April and I will be competing in other state primaries and caucuses as well. [...] Eric Kleefeld of the Talking Points Memo reported that CNN breaks it's own rules to include Governor Rick Perry in the CNN - SLRC South Carolina Debate. CNN DC Bureau Chief Sam Feist explained that Rick Perry does qualify because a subset of a CBS poll that does not allow participants to choose "Someone Else" shows Perry at 7%. This is the same logic that Governor Gary Johnson used to prove he qualified for the CNN - WMUR - St. Anselm College Debate in June but that CNN rejected. By including Governor Perry, CNN has changed its "pre-established objective criteria" and thus is in violation of Federal Election Laws. Rick Perry and I received less than 1% of the vote in the First-in-the-Nation Primary, so why did CNN not include me in the South Carolina Debate as well? Well, as you no doubt already know, that effort did not come to fruition. Nevertheless, he is determined to stick around. Per the Columbia Free Times: "I'm not dropping out and endorsing Newt Gingrich or anybody," said Fred Karger in a phone interview with Free Times. The 61-year-old California native and gay activist, who worked for Ronald Reagan and on nine presidential campaigns as a staffer, beat Michele Bachmann by 135 votes in the New Hampshire primary where he'd heavily campaigned. The Minnesota congresswoman had already dropped out, but it still gave Karger some confidence. "I'd argue that even dead candidates win elections sometimes," he laughed. As the Free Times notes, Karger did some campaigning in South Carolina despite not being on the ballot. He will train the bulk of his future effort, however, in Michigan.
Now that Gary Johnson has decamped from the Republican Party's primary pageant, and signed on as a potential nominee of the Libertarian Party, he's back at square one, making his case all over again. Craig Schlesinger of the Nashville Libertarian Examiner believes that the polling data suggests that Johnson's message may resonate: The logical conclusion is that Gary Johnson's message is increasingly palatable to those fed up with the current political duopoly and its disingenuous stranglehold over the public policy discourse. As his national media exposure increases, so does his support. As Gov. Johnson told Alex Witt, "It's always been about the message. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think there was the opportunity to actually win." And this week, Congress and the country became embroiled over an issue that was squarely in Johnson's wheelhouse -- the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. Billed as countermeasures to online piracy, the bills drew protest and outrage all week from those who pointed out that the proposed laws went much further than humanly necessary as a piracy deterrent, instead paving the way for big dinosaur content providers to quash creative competition from web-content creators. (Full disclosure: Your Speculatroners are decidedly against SOPA/PIPA.) As websites like Reddit and Wikipedia went on strike over these bills, Johnson's campaign site went dark, save for a short message: The article below from the LA Times is just one of many today reporting that we - millions of Americans who see the Internet as a last bastion of freedom - are maybe, just maybe, getting Congress attention about two very bad ideas: SOPA and PIPA. Kudos to Wikipedia and the thousands of other sites who took action to let people know of these threats to Internet freedom, the flow of information, and the free market. As I have said, there are NO problems with the Internet that we want the government to try to fix! This evening, as millions of parents find themselves answering their kids' homework questions without the help of Wikipedia or any number of other sites that have changed the world, I hope everyone will visit Wikipedia, Google.com, or other sites to sign petitions or otherwise let Congress know that we want the government to keep its hands off the Internet. While it's still too early to offer reliable assessments of how Johnson's Libertarian bid might effect the presidential election as a whole, that doesn't stop anyone from trying to do so. A big factor will be whether or not Paul's supporters will come to Johnson if Paul neither secures the nomination nor launches a third party bid of his own (as your Speculatron has contended in the past, neither of these outcomes seem likely). For his part, Johnson says that he's not trying, necessarily, to lay claim to any part of the movement Paul has built: "We talk about the same things...but the way I see it, I'm not going after the Paul vote. I'm going after the Libertarian vote."
History doesn't favor the efforts of candidates who jump into a nomination contest at the last minute, a fact Fred Thompson can attest to during the downtime he has attesting to the value of reverse mortgages. So when Rick Perry decided to take the plunge, the weekend of the Ames Straw Poll, he did so with a mix of expectations -- he was touted as the sort of candidate who could knit up all of the various conservative factions under one banner, but there was some general doubt that he could make up for all the lost time. Nevertheless, Perry plotted his rollout and managed it well. He announced in South Carolina, stealing some of the spotlight from the other 2012ers fighting for a Straw Poll win. And then, in an effort to mitigate some of the bruised feelings that arose from that spotlight-stealing, he sped to the Hawkeye State for a GOP event and proceeded to charm the pants off of the attendees while the Ames Straw Poll winner, Michele Bachmann, sulked in her bus. So, the first 48 hours of the Perry campaign were managed to perfection. Unfortunately, there were many, many hundreds of hours to come, and it was in that period of time that the entire Rick Perry campaign went to complete shit. See, according to the rules of engagement, the Texas governor was required to spend a certain amount of time on national television saying things. And it was in that venue that Perry truly did the opposite of excelling. At times, he seems lost and asleep at the lectern. At other times, his policy proposals tended to blur as he failed to provide a contrast between himself and his rivals. And then, there were those more celebrated occasions where he forgot how to think, form sentences or count. And those occasions were legion. There have been numerous occasions where we have had the opportunity to say of a speaker that "words failed him." It would be unfair to say the same of Perry. Words were fine. Words didn't do a damn thing wrong. Perry, literally, failed words. It didn't take long for Perry's numbers to start plummeting amid mental fugues and the constant din of rumors that suggested his campaign was being badly mismanaged. Everyone who suggested that he'd be the ideal conservative standard-bearer slowly backed away. The money-lenders started to wonder if they'd backed the wrong horse. Pitiful results in Iowa followed, so much so that no one thought it was smart for him to continue. Perry reassessed, thought otherwise, kept debating, and drew scant support in New Hampshire. Finally, he flamed out in South Carolina, and despite promising to persist even if he finished last, dropped out. There's not much else to say about this. With Perry's departure, we lose the most reliable gaffe assembly line in the race. And that assembly line has produced a bevy of laughs. To his credit, Perry took the abuse with splendid, self-deprecating charm. He owned it. He didn't whine or make a bunch of excuses. But it all stopped being "ha-ha" funny and started being "Oh no, WTF" when he stood on stage and nearly touched off an international incident with Turkey. He's tossed his support to Gingrich now, in what may be the only important contribution he's made to the 2012 race. Perry has not ruled out a future run for president, which is strange, because...come on. But for the time being, we bid farewell to the governor of Texas with his most famous saying: Adios, mofo.
Former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman earned the prestige and wealth needed to contemplate a career in politics and an eventual run for the White House through the hereditary and financial benefits of his father, Jon Huntsman, Sr. If you've not followed the career of the elder Huntsman, the most important contribution he's made was as an innovator in the fast-food industry. But Huntsman's father isn't someone who contributed to the ersatz deliciousness or bloated might of our American Exceptional hamburgers. Rather, his contribution came in the form of the "clamshell" design of the package which came to be known as the encasement for the Big Mac. If you know this, then the presidential campaign of his son makes a lot of sense, for in the end, it turned out to be little more than a container in which very little substance could be found. The way Huntsman campaigned, you'd think that this was its explicit intention, because it was almost entirely focused on packaging. Huntsman's campaign began with a website of nonsensical poetry, and in the days leading up to his announcement, his campaign team produced a series of oddly surreal videos of a man riding a motorbike through the desert. Its only effect was to confound, and when the campaign was asked about it, they responded only with arched eyebrows and hints that there was some kind of larger significance we were all missing. Huntsman eventually came to stand in front of the Statue of Liberty, as Ronald Reagan did before him, to announce the beginning of his campaign. And yet Huntsman did not provide the onlookers with any glimpse of some Reagan-esque vision -- his presentation was the height of enervation. For Huntsman, it seemed to be enough that he simply provided some sort of juxtaposition with the idea of Reagan. Hey, everyone, remember when Reagan only played small clubs? Huntsman's major problem was that he was perceived by the base as a moderate, media-darling candidate, when in reality, he was as conservative as any of his fellows. His tax plan was indistinguishable from his rivals, his free-market fealty equally faith-based. When asked if he'd support nixing a budget deal that featured $1 of revenue to every $10 of cuts, "moderate" Huntsman held his hand in the air with the people he wanted everyone to believe were out of touch radicals. Where was the real Huntsman in all of this? Nevermind: focus on the packaging. The question of who, exactly, Huntsman wanted to actually attract to his campaign hung in the air. And to the best of our ability, that answer seemed to have been "glossy magazine publishers." If the GOP nomination was determined by the sheer number of newsstand profiles, Huntsman would have won in a walk. His most celebrated profile came in the pages of Vogue magazine, whose famed Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour's most well-known mandate is that the editorial content of the magazine must be on par with the gorgeous ad copy that fills its pages. Huntsman, then, was a natural fit -- his was a candidacy that was indistinguishable from an advertisement. Who knows what Huntsman was trying to do with all the Kurt Cobain jokes, Captain Beefheart shout-outs, and his briefly-mounted Giuliani-esque "hole up in Florida strategy." He spent as much time slyly dropping Mandarin lines at debates as he did explaining the value of his experience in China. He offered nominal support for scientists without ever really expounding on what specific policy choices would be guided by that support. When Huntsman jumped into the race, we spent lots of time watching his old State of the State interviews given to local media during his tenure as governor. On those occasions, he spoke with great detail and lucidity about policy and progress, explaining his thought-process, and defending his decisions. That Jon Huntsman never made an appearance in the campaign. We suspect that a big reason why was that his campaign manager was John Weaver, who decided that he was really some sort of political iconoclast after ending up on the outside of the McCain family of consultants. In Jon Huntsman he evidently found a candidate who was easily convinced that he was much the same. In the end, the Huntsman campaign went absolutely nowhere special. There was a third-place finish in New Hampshire, followed by a furtive attempt to manufacture enthusiasm, and then, at last, everything just sort of stopped. Huntsman bailed on the race the same day he earned the endorsement of South Carolina's the State newspaper. One suspected that he might have decided to give up the moment he found out that he'd not won the endorsement of the comedy troupe of the same name. Truly, if that "The State" had swung behind him, it would have been more in keeping with the weird, post-structuralist experiment in meta that his campaign had become. And so Huntsman ends as he began -- an expensive empty shell, still waiting to be filled with something worth ingesting. Americans Elect is going to LOOOOVE him.
The biggest way President Barack Obama was injected into the newscycle this week didn't come from anything that Obama said or did himself. Rather, it came from Newsweek magazine, which decided to essentially troll the entire political blogosphere with an essay from Andrew Sullivan billed on the cover with the headline: "Why Are Obama's Critics So Dumb?" Kind of hard to resist responding to that, I'd imagine, so bring on the pageviews! Sullivan's essay was only slightly subtler than the magazine cover suggested. In it, he argued that everyone was missing Obama's "long game," and that his critics on both the right and the left were all being fairly daft in their criticism of his administration. A representative taste: The right's core case is that Obama has governed as a radical leftist attempting a "fundamental transformation" of the American way of life. Mitt Romney accuses the president of making the recession worse, of wanting to turn America into a European welfare state, of not believing in opportunity or free enterprise, of having no understanding of the real economy, and of apologizing for America and appeasing our enemies. According to Romney, Obama is a mortal threat to "the soul" of America and an empty suit who couldn't run a business, let alone a country. Leave aside the internal incoherence -- how could such an incompetent be a threat to anyone? None of this is even faintly connected to reality -- and the record proves it. On the economy, the facts are these. When Obama took office, the United States was losing around 750,000 jobs a month. The last quarter of 2008 saw an annualized drop in growth approaching 9 percent. This was the most serious downturn since the 1930s, there was a real chance of a systemic collapse of the entire global financial system, and unemployment and debt -- lagging indicators -- were about to soar even further. No fair person can blame Obama for the wreckage of the next 12 months, as the financial crisis cut a swath through employment. Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle: What liberals have never understood about Obama is that he practices a show-don't-tell, long-game form of domestic politics. What matters to him is what he can get done, not what he can immediately take credit for. And so I railed against him for the better part of two years for dragging his feet on gay issues. But what he was doing was getting his Republican defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to move before he did. The man who made the case for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" was, in the end, Adm. Mike Mullen. This took time -- as did his painstaking change in the rule barring HIV-positive immigrants and tourists -- but the slow and deliberate and unprovocative manner in which it was accomplished made the changes more durable. Not for the first time, I realized that to understand Obama, you have to take the long view. Because he does. Naturally, not everyone found this argument convincing. Kevin Drum suggested that Sullivan's "long game" case was somewhat overstated, and that he was attributing weird strategic significance to decisions that Obama made that were obviously in response to the politics of the immediate moment. Conor Friedersdorf wondered why Sullivan concentrated his efforts in contending with Obama's dumbest critics, instead of the more intelligent ones, and he suggested that Sullivan was letting his fandom run away with him a little bit: No, Obama isn't a radical Kenyan anti-colonialist. But he is a lawbreaker and an advocate of radical executive power. What precedent could be more radical than insisting that the executive is empowered to draw up a kill list of American citizens in secret, without telling anyone what names are on it, or the legal justification for it, or even that it exists? What if Newt Gingrich inherits that power? He may yet. Over the years, Sullivan has confronted, as few others have, American transgressions abroad, including torture, detainee abuse, and various imperial ambitions. He's long drawn attention to civil-liberties violations at home too, as a solo blogger and as lead editor and writer of a blogazine. When I worked for Sullivan, he not only published but actively encouraged items I found that highlighted civil-liberties abuses by the Obama Administration, and since I parted ways with The Daily Dish, he and the Dish team have continued to air critiques of Obama on these questions. But his Newsweek essay fits the pattern I've lamented of Obama apologists who tell a narrative of his administration that ignores some of these issues and minimizes the importance of others, as if they're a relatively unimportant matter to be set aside in a sentence or three before proceeding to the more important business of whether the president is being critiqued fairly by obtuse partisans. While all of this was going on, the Obama administration was finally putting the kibosh (temporarily, again) on the Keystone XL pipeline. In the immediate sense, this can be viewed as a brave decision politically -- it's going to anger Republicans and unions -- while giving a lift to environmentalists, who are grateful to see this matter merely kicked down the road. Of course, if the GOP succeeds at getting their bogus "this would have created 20,000 jobs" narrative planted (the actual estimate is that KeystoneXL would create 6,500 jobs -- which is still nothing to sneeze at) in the media, it could be used as a campaign brickbat. The goodwill might evaporate, however, when Obama releases his next budget proposal, which liberal lawmakers are already being warned is something they will not like. (Obama's job council, significantly, is urging more domestic drilling in a move that would allow Obama to fend off some of the election-year criticism he's expecting to take from the GOP. It also could explain why Keystone XL was back-burnered. Nonetheless, the campaign season has officially begun for Team Obama Re-Elect, with the opening act coming in the form of a Twitter fight between David Axelrod and Romney spox Eric Fehrnstrom. It leaves one to wonder: If you'd told George Washington that American politics would one day become something battled out over Twitter, do you think he would have continued to fight the British? The Obama campaign is also already buying up ad time, battling the Koch Brothers, and planning a post-State of the Union swing state tour. In other words, campaign mode is fully engaged. And Obama will start off with a five-point lead over Romney, which maybe explains why he's feeling like he can do things like celebrate the birthdays of Zooey Deschanel and Betty White without being thought of as distracted. It certainly suggests that Obama's feeling some measure of confidence. Mind that it doesn't turn into overconfidence, however! There's something a little off about a decision to stage the final day of the Democratic National Convention, at a time where the rack and ruin of the Wall Street collapse remains evident everywhere, at a place called "Bank of America stadium." And whoever thought it would be a good idea for Obama to do a photo-op in front of Disney's Magic Kingdom -- and this may have been Obama himself! -- is without a doubt this week's "Dumbest Mofeaux In American Politics," no matter what Andrew Sullivan tells you.
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