Friday, December 2, 2011

Four Letter Words

Four Letter Words

Mitt and Newt.  Newt and Mitt?  A comedy duo?  Actually sounds more like a country-western band.  Definitely not a couple.  But more and more they are becoming among the most popular four-letter words, at least among Republican primary voters. 

This political season has seen more than its share of silly.  There is, of course, the agony and (denied) ecstasy of Cain (another four-letter word).  There’s “nice,” as in “Minnesota Nice,” Tim Pawlenty’s calling card.  “Nice” was very quickly discarded.  Not a lot of demand for “Nice.”  There’s Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.  No one ever seems to like the name “Richard,” which may be a story on to itself, and fewer and fewer seem to like either of the two Ricks.  As an aside, one has to wonder why, while in competition for the most important and serious job in the world, we need so many diminutives, as if Michael Dukakis could have ever really been a “Mike,” but I suppose a little populism can’t hurt.

Then, there’s “Poll.” As in political poll.  In a Rasmussen Reports Poll, among Republican voters, Newt has suddenly stormed into the lead over Mitt by a margin of 38% to 17%, an astounding act akin to Lazarus, given that Newt had been in mid single digits just a couple of months ago.  Now, Rasmussen has a very peculiar sampling and weighting methodology that sometimes seem to equate the general electorate as mirroring registered Republicans, but, in this case, that’s the sample.  Newt by 2/1 over Mitt.

Rasmussen also indicates that, if the election were held today, Newt Gingrich would become the 45th President of the United States.

Let’s take a deep breath for a moment, pause from contemplating that, and return to our Political Jeopardy Game category of “Four Letter Words.”

Mitt was the front-runner, and, unfortunately for him, he’s been branded with two four letter words, “Flip” and “Flop.”  Even more unfortunate is that these words, though a coarse slogan, seem entirely appropriate.  It is astonishing just how much Romney has turned his back on previously held positions.  And these aren’t nuanced changes.  These are complete turn-arounds, on seminal issues such as abortion, climate change, immigration, and (dare I mention it) government involvement in medical insurance.  Some of his supporters in the press have started a narrative of a principled change and evolution in his thinking.  Kathleen Parker, for example, recently wrote a good piece in the Washington Post talking about why Romney is now pro-life.  But from the candidate himself, nothing-it’s as if his past doesn’t exist.  I wonder why he’s chosen this path.  Romney is smart, tall, “Presidential-looking,” with a track record in business and as a Governor-why not go with that?  I understand that Republican Primary voters are far more conservative than the country as a whole, but he hasn’t persuaded many of them that his conversions are real, and he may have persuaded the general electorate that he seemingly has no core principles. 

That’s because Mitt has a second problem with a four-letter word.  That’s “want.”  Every candidate for President must have the fire in the belly, but Mitt wants it too much.  It was Hillary’s problem as well in the last election, although she expressed it less on policy.  Mitt burns to be President.  His smooth demeanor during the early debates obscured it, but, now that he is under pressure, it is coming out.  His problematic Fox interview is just one example.  Mitt thinks he deserves to be President.  He looks at his competitors with an aristocratic disdain.  He not only thinks he doesn’t need to explain the change in his positions, he thinks he shouldn’t be asked about them.  Mitt is running headlong into a profound but unspoken chord in the American psyche.  We want our heroes to be modest.  And we want our Presidents to be like Washington-a reluctant candidate driven by duty.  We are suspicious; justifiably so, of anyone who tells us they deserve it.  Because, in our collective mind, that tells us they just “want” it.  Wanting is not the same as deserving.

Newt has his own issues with four-letter words (and, no, “ego” isn’t a four-letter word).  His problem is “cash.”  Not the Tiffany’s charge account, and not even his lack of fundraising, because that will certainly not be a problem if he’s the nominee.  “Cash,” because when Newt left Congress, that’s what he became.  He monetized his fame and became Newt, Inc.  The man who said Chris Dodd and Barney Frank should be thrown in jail for their close connection to the financial services industry took between $1.6-1.8 Million from Fannie Mae. Fannie isn’t the only one who dropped piles of cash on Newt.  GE, IBM, Microsoft, the ethanol industry, the oil industry, the healthcare industry-all have supposedly “consulted” Newt for “ideas.”  While “idea” could be helpful four-letter word, and Newt’s professorial guise at the debates fit with that, in the special world of Washington, an “idea” equates to “cash.”  Newt, by the way, apparently doesn’t lobby in return for that cash (he would have to register for that).  He thinks big thoughts.      

Of course, many politicians of both parties leave “public service” and go on to lobby, or to work for the industries they formerly regulated, or to ideological think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institute, Brookings, etc.  Rudy has been trading off his “America’s Mayor” image for more than a decade and has become a very wealthy man.  And there’s a special assisted living facility for GOP luminaries at Fox (Newt, of course, had a suite there as well.) 

So, why is “cash” such a problem for Newt?  Americans are easy to forgive, and primary voters exercise a very particularized type of memory.  Why not this time?  If they can forgive his personal issues, and forget his bad ending as Speaker, why not this?  Sunlight is a problem for politicians.  The next few years are going to be very difficult for most Americans.  The economy isn’t going to come roaring back, no matter who is President.  The middle class is going to suffer.  The elderly are going to see cuts in entitlement programs and higher premiums, and private and public pensions are going to be under assault.  The overwhelming majority of the electorate will pay more, and get less.  And every special interest group is out there right now pleading its case, often with barrels of cash.

The electorate might take notice.  And that would take us to a five-letter word, “trust.” Let's see if that mixes well with any of the aforementioned four-letter words.