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Saturday, November 19, 2011
Politics ...

I’m old enough to vaguely remember the 1960 Presidential election; even as a second-grader, I knew that Kennedy was the good guy and Nixon was the cowboy with the black hat. When early November rolled around, the local newspapers heralded the dawn of JFK and Camelot. I felt reassured. The world was just as it was supposed to be.

Since then I have maintained my interest in Presidential politics. One rule of thumb became clear by the time I got out of college – there was a lot of drama in the candidate selection process on the Democratic side, but not for the GOP. The Dems aired their disagreements in public, while the Republicans seemed to find their candidate quickly and efficiently. In 1968, there were all those sparks between Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy following Lyndon Johnson’s surprising withdrawal and Robert Kennedy’s tragic death.

Then, 1972 saw the star-crossed insurgency by George McGovern fill the vacuum created by Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick disgrace and Ed Muskie’s tearful implosion in New Hampshire. And 1976 was also interesting, with the fresh-faced Jimmy Carter beating out a crowded field that included such colorful characters as Jerry Brown, Scoop Jackson, and the somewhat more sedate Mo Udall. Then 1980 saw a resurgent Ted Kennedy, but not resurgent enough to overwhelm a sitting President. But just resurgent enough to help cripple the ill-fated Carter presidency, as Carter’s bid for a second term was squashed that November by Ronald Reagan.

Onward into the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s, the Dems kept the drama and comedy going whenever time rolled around for the big quad-annual election ritual. There certainly were struggles on the Republican side, such as between Gerald Ford and Reagan, but it mostly played out in the back rooms, not out on page 1 or the 7 pm newscast. No one I knew cared a whit about the GOP primaries or convention.

In 2008, the Democrats put on a true passion play, staging a death struggle between the queen of the Party, Hilary Clinton, and the rebellious Barack Obama. It was a true spectacle, finally going to the younger, more vital Obama, who rallied masses of true-believers. Their unending waves of enthusiasm were beyond what I can remember for any past candidate. The GOP’s selection of Senator McCain was a sleeper, even by comparison with past GOP campaigns.

But here we are approaching 2012, and no sane Democrat would dare challenge the first African-American US President, no matter what his liabilities have and will continue to be. Both the true liberal and the moderate factions have been let down by Obama, but that is to be expected; however, the fact that Obama has not managed to do this while looking good, as most successful Presidents have been able, is a troubling sign.

So the Republicans, aware of Obama’s leadership flaws and an economy stubbornly stuck at 9% unemployment, smell blood. As a result, they are showing levels of energy this year in their nomination race like I’ve never seen. As such, they have become terribly fussy and quarrelsome this year, rather like the Democrats of old.

In past years, the candidate from central casting, i.e. Mitt Romney, would have things pretty much sewed up by now. Mitt is the heir-apparent with the perfect haircut; the guy who has been practicing for this moment for at least 8 years now. Ever since 1964 (with Barry Goldwater’s surprise nomination over the more sedate, establishmentarian Nelson Rockefeller), the GOP has always gone for the guy who had made earlier attempts at the nomination and had been patiently waiting his turn. The party always talked the usual GOP talk about tax cuts and strong military and solid Christian family values, but avoided the extremists who would attack Social Security and such.

But this time, the GOP nomination has turned into a carnival. In just a few months we have seen a variety of challengers to Romney’s dominance come and go, having their shining moment and then falling back to earth. E.g., Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and now Herman Cain. All along, the polls repeatedly show Romney holding on to the loyalty of about one quarter of Republican voters. The other three quarters keep searching for an ideological savant, someone immune from Romney’s infection with the policy flip-flops that are necessary and inherent to actually running any sort of real government; and yet someone who could match Romney’s apparent ability to do just that, i.e. run a real government. And preferably do it with the help of old-fashioned Christian inspiration, not with the “Latter-Day Saints” stuff that Romney is steeped in.

It doesn’t look as though “the 75 percent” are going to find exactly what they want. Trump and Cain made for interesting first dates, i.e. “there’s something different about these guys from what we’re so tired of”. But as with most first dates based on what a potential paramour is NOT, things fell apart when it became obvious what these people actually ARE (i.e., wacky and politically inept). Bachmann brought back bad memories of Sarah Palin, i.e. longer on looks and enthusiasm than on policy substance.

Rick Perry seemed at first to have what it takes, but was done in by trying to regurgitate a memorized list during a debate (something that Ronald Reagan, an obvious candidate for brain freezes, knew enough not to attempt); and for implementing governmental measures to promote the health and education of non-wealthy Texans. It’s not hard to understand then why the “75%” group doesn’t like Romney, who despite lack of brain freezes, has a history of trying to help the non-wealthy, most notoriously through his universal health care program in Massachusetts. Despite his pleas for forgiveness and his claims of conversion from such apostasy, the T-party crowd just doesn’t feel good about Romney.

It’s starting to get late, however, with the Iowa caucuses just 6 weeks away. So the 75 percent is taking another look at those it passed up when the dance began, and seems ready to give Newt Gingrich a second chance. Nasty Newt is a left-over from the 1990’s, when he made the headlines as Bill Clinton’s most formidable Republican opponent (as House Speaker and drafter of the “Contract With America”). Back then he seemed terribly right-wing, but by today’s standards in the GOP, his positions are mostly milquetoast.

In the interim, Newt has managed to say and do his share of wacky things. Therefore, no one took his candidacy seriously this year. However, in the candidate debates over the past few months, Gingrich has exhibited skill and substance, and toned down his nasty side. There’s a New Newt out there, who might become the last and best hope for the ideologically over-heated Republican party of today.

That would be quite an irony. Again, when I myself think about Gingrich, I also think about Bill Clinton. They were like mirror-images, polar opposites having the same features and structures. Clinton is famous for his marital infidelities, and Newt turned out to be quite the ladies man himself. Clinton merged liberal-sounding talk with shrewd political calculus, and Gingrich seems best able to do likewise from the modern ultra-conservatism perspective. Clinton could gain the acclaim of the needy and their champions by “feeling their pain”, while not doing anything extraordinary to help them; similarly, Gingrich might be able to “feel the pain” of the rich and the wanna-be rich and cement their loyalty, while keeping in place the New Deal and Great Society legacy (although the Obama health care reforms would be largely scuttled).

In sum, Newt Gingrich is the ghost of Bill Clinton, coming back to haunt us. In 2007, it seemed clear that the Bill Clinton legacy was about to assert itself through the election of Hilary. But Barack Obama said “no, you can’t” to that. It would be extremely ironic if Newt somehow caught fire amidst the “anyone but Romney” crowd, captured the nomination, and managed to beat Barack Obama in November, 2012. All that is an extremely long shot at the moment; Romney still has the GOP establishment on his side, Newt still has tons of baggage for opponents to sort through, and head-to-head polls between Gingrich and Obama show him 8 to 15 points behind. However, political momentum has finally landed at Newt’s door, and if anyone can figure out what to do with it, that would be – Bill Clinton. Or his evil, similarly smooth and intelligent-talking doppleganger, Newt Gingrich!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:11 pm      
 
 


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