A week in the life of American politics

By Dr Dana Allin,  Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy  and Transatlantic Affairs; Editor of Survival

Mitt Romney may win the South Carolina primary tomorrow, which will make the last five days seem – to him at least – like nothing more than a bad dream. But Newt Gingrich has surged ahead in the latest polls, and whatever the results of Saturday’s contest, it is worth taking note of one of the most astonishing – and not in a good way – weeks of American politics in living memory.

Since we have to start somewhere, we might as well start with the Gingrich performance at a candidates’ debate on Monday night, where he doubled down on repeatedly calling Barack Obama ‘the food stamp president.’ The white southern audience gave him a standing ovation.

This was apparently Gingrich’s idea of speaking truth to power, a particularly audacious example in that he was replying to Juan Williams, the black moderator’s, question about whether he can understand the hurt of many black Americans at his use of such racially coded language. For Gingrich continued: ‘First of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in history.’ (Here he had to pause to soak in the crowd’s approval.) ‘I know among the politically correct you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.’ The Economist blog dispatched this pose of unusual courage rather neatly:

“A thought experiment: On Twin Earth, does anyone call President John McCain the ‘food-stamp president’? Is it ‘politically incorrect’ there to call him that? Or is it just so tactically weird to pin that label on a white Republican who inherited a huge recession that the idea simply never occurred to anyone? If, back in our world, it’s not ‘politically correct’ and not tactically weird to pin that label on a black Democrat who inherited a huge recession, then why not?’

There is no reason on earth to suspect New Gingrich of personal racism, just as there is no way a sentient earthling can fail to observe his repeated use of racialist dog whistles. (Before officially launching his presidential campaign, Gingrich enthusiastically embraced a book titled The Roots of Obama’s Rage with the words: ‘What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?’ It took a former George W. Bush speechwriter, David Frum, to state the obvious: ‘When last was there such a brazen outburst of race-baiting in the service of partisan politics at the national level? George Wallace took more care to sound race-neutral.’)

Anyway, the ‘food-stamp president’ was Monday. Thursday night was another debate, and the subject this time was sex. ABC News was about to broadcast an interview with Gingrich’s second ex-wife in which she claimed that he proposed to deal with the problem of his affair with the woman who became his third (and current) wife through their agreement to an ‘open marriage.’ The claim is not actually new – it was contained in an Esquire article of many years ago. Asked about it as the first question of the debate, Gingrich impressively turned the question into an example of the media’s determination to ‘protect’ Barack Obama. ‘Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign, is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.’ The audience loved this one too, which might be stated in the somewhat less heated argument that personal failings are not matters of public policy – though making that case arguably requires forgetting that Gingrich conducted his affair while leading an impeachment battle against President Clinton for Clinton’s own affair.

In between the two bravura performances by Gingrich, it was announced that a miscount of ballots in the effectively tied Iowa Caucuses meant that Rick Santorum, rather than Romney, could now claim on the basis of a literal handful of votes to be the nominal winner of that contest. So whereas just days before Romney looked poised to clinch an unprecedented triple victory of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, it now looks like the contests could be divided three ways between Santorum, Romney and Gingrich. Also on Thursday, Texas Governor Rick Perry said he was withdrawing from the race and endorsing Gingrich – conceivably a step towards uniting the heretofore divided conservative, stop-Romney vote. All the while, the self-styled conservatives in the race have continued to hammer him from the left – one might even say, the far left – for the allegedly predatory capitalism of Bain Capital, the venture capital firm where Romney made his fortune. And that fortune has been the subject of unpleasant scrutiny as Romney hems and haws, as he did again in the Thursday debate, about whether he will make public his tax returns (which, due to favorable treatment of investment income, are presumed to show a much lower effective rate of taxation than is paid by most middle class Americans).

It has been, in sum, Mitt Romney’s not-very-good week. And none of it may matter, even if Gingrich does pull off a win tomorrow. In truth, it is still hard to see Romney – a more plausible president with a much better campaign organisation and much more money – losing this nomination. In many ways he remains lucky – although the Republican base is clearly not into him and doesn’t trust him, plausible alternatives have not really emerged to challenge him. Luckier still is Barack Obama – until, that is, the faintly growing US economy is pulled by the black hole of Europe’s debt crisis back into the vortex of unemployment misery.


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