This week, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum decided that the time to quit his upset bid had finally come. He shuttered a campaign that had risen from the depths to become a surprising success and, for a time, a real burr in former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's side. But with the heavy risk of flaming out for a second time in his home state, Santorum opted to go out on as high a note as possible, and in so doing, he officially made the primary season a secondary concern.
Yes, Texas Rep. Ron Paul still has some leverage to wield, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has some shout left in him, but this race has ended up where we mostly thought it would, with Romney as the GOP standardbearer and President Barack Obama as the incumbent hoping to hold forth. Neither man is unprepared for this matchup. Romney has, almost from the beginning, spent more time looking past his fellow GOP contenders and kept his eyes on his eventual general election opponent. And the Obama campaign never indulged too heavily in the speculation that one of Romney's competitors was going to end up tripping Mitt at the finish line. Each has anticipated the other, and by and large, so have we all.
Now, the question that gets raised is what sort of race we should expect from here. On that regard, Politico's John Harris predicts that the coming campaign will be a model of "self-restraint in an age of rage."
The general election will pit one exceptionally self-contained, self-disciplined, self-motivated man against another with precisely the same traits.
Voters have a choice between two men whose minds gravitate to rationality and logic — both of whom have expressed disdain for the disorder and surliness that pervade modern governance.
There may be more than coincidence at work with this seeming paradox. During a time when politics is defined by media saturation and relentless attacks, there is a premium on politicians who live by an ethic of constant self-control.
It sure is pretty to think that this is what's likely to happen. But this week's "Rosengate" flap suggests otherwise. This is a matter we've already opined at length about, so we won't repeat ourselves. But the whole incident demonstrated that civility can go out the window entirely when the right buttons get pressed. In this case, we had Romney's yawning gender gap, and the vulnerability that poses for him, intersecting with the traditional "leave the spouses out of it" rule of decorum.
The result: a silly vendetta. The Romney team went full-teeth after someone who's got nothing at all to do with the campaign. The Obama team ordered its allies to go out with a baseball bat and not return until they'd managed to get a Hilary Rosen-shaped dent embedded in the wood. Whatever value there was to be had in a discussion about women or moms or the economy got lost. The only thing Romney gained was an opportunity to push the assassination joke by his new backer, Foster Friess -- and the sixth birthday of "Romneycare" -- out of the headlines. The only benefit to Obama was a cheap scoring of a "Sista Soulja moment." And in the end, the entire contretemps only really had salience with the cosseted elites of the Beltway and the media by which it is served.
But one of your Speculatroners' regular readers emailed in with a good point: If Hilary Rosen had made the same comments two months ago, no one would have said a blessed word about it. And that's the difference between the primary season and what we're on to now. We're no longer in the part of the process where Romney gets shot at and he has to abide by Reagan's 11th Commandment and stay his hand. It's open season on everybody now.
We'd like to believe in the fantasy that Harris is describing, but we don't. (In fact, we think that all Harris is doing is setting up the "I'm so disappointed in the direction the election has taken" article that he already plans to write.) This week's sharp turn into rage was predictable, considering last week's kerfuffle between Reince Priebus and Democratic rapid-responders, who bypassed arguing a substantive point and went straight to trying to score cheap points arguing Priebus' metaphor.
But here's all you need to remember. Obama is happy to wage a negative campaign. Romney has already calculated that lying will need to be a key feature of his campaign (and his surrogates have actually admitted this). And both of these guys will be backed by stacked super PACs, that only really exist to allow someone affiliated with the campaign to get elbow-deep in the dank.
So we're at a crossroads here, and the candidates have choices. They could wage a high-minded campaign, rooted in substance, and wage a valuable debate that edifies and empowers voters. Or they could choose a nasty, brutish, interminable slog to November. We'd love to see the former, but we predict the latter.
Elsewhere on the campaign trail, the smooth road for Gary Johnson's quest for the Libertarian Party nomination hit a roadblock, Newt Gingrich expanded his fight with Romney to a fight with a former employer, Ron Paul's campaign waged an unseen battle in Missouri that could presage his future, Obama's campaign battled ts own sense of cockiness, and Rick Santorum had a surprisingly potent bid for respectability. For all of this and the rest of the news from the rapidly receding campaign trail, please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of April 13, 2012.
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