Friday, January 6, 2012

Iowa Dreams and New Hampshire Nightmares

Iowa Dreams and New Hampshire Nightmares

The Romney Express was rounding the bend and roaring towards the Iowa Caucuses.  Along the way it's kissed babies, worn shirt sleeves like regular folk, talked traditional social values, trampled over the barrage balloon that was formerly Newt Gingrich, thrown a little napalm at the increasingly fringe Ron Paul, and begun to settle in like a gourmand in anticipation of a catered all-you-can eat buffet. 

It’s all so weird.  It’s a little like going to your boss’s very nice house, joining others on his very nice tennis courts for a non-competitive and perhaps alcohol-enhanced set or two, watch the great man come out dressed in perfect whites, casually volleying with his guests, and winning every game, his strokes coming with metronomic perfectness, each slightly harder than absolutely necessary for a friendly match. 

He’s got good hair, a good handshake and a good chin.  But he’s a little cold, a little scary, a little businesslike. You admire his savvy but you aren’t sure you want to have a beer with him.  Iowa was the contract he wasn’t going to win; he wasn’t even going to bid on it, but there he is, snatching it up and stowing it away in his wallet. 

I wonder if Iowa wasn’t a tactical mistake by Romney-if he exposed himself more than he needed to. Bachmann is gone, pushed out by her own mistakes, lack of organization and emerging irrelevance.  Perry, who was probably the most legitimate threat, is now taking a step back, pinning his hopes for a revival on the friendly confines of South Carolina, where love of the military and a nearly 200 year-old fixation on nullification of laws they don’t agree with make it prime hunting ground for the man from Texas.  Newt is wounded, and has the look of a loser.  Huntsman seems to morphing into Woody Allen in “Sleeper”-his candidacy doesn’t seem to be of this time and place.  Ron Paul continues to be Ron Paul-he’s the scaly patch of eczema on the GOP’s elbow; annoying, continuously around, unsightly, but not necessarily dangerous, even if untreated.

But Mitt’s not quite there yet.  He’s going to do quite well in New Hampshire, but that’s expected, so it’s hard to say whether that gives him a real boost.  Gingrich is angry, and while his chance of getting the nomination is now nil, he’s got enough polling support to stay in the debates and wait in the tall grass to knife Mitt around the ankles.  And there are other hints of frost in the air.  Later this month in Texas, a gathering of social conservatives, including people like Tony Perkins of the influential Family Research Council, are going to conclave to consider alternatives.  Mitt, for all his business acumen, his steely-eyed competitiveness, hasn’t closed the sale with those folk.  I’m betting he never will.  If absolutely necessary, they will buy a ticket on Romney’s train in order to beat Obama.  But they aren’t going to enjoy the ride.

Could they turn to Santorum?  Well, in the last couple of days, several conservative columnists, Charles Krauthammer, Mark Gerson, and David Brooks, among them, have spoken admiringly of him.  But Santorum is underfunded and under-organized (for now) and lost his last election by 18 points.  He has a history that is open to criticism; he monetized his job while inside the Senate, and then had a very soft and lucrative landing into the arms of friendly contributors and supporters.  Still, none of that is going to matter if the machine decides to back him.  But these are not stupid people, and they have no desire to back a loser.  Santorum has to demonstrate he can win, and for that he has to survive the vetting, the spotlight, and catch the imagination for more than fifteen minutes, and none of those are a given. 

There are no such things as perfect candidates.  Everyone has a past that can be deconstructed and distorted.  It’s just another tool in the toolbox, now amplified by Superpacs.  Newt was the perfect target.  But negative ads aren’t always effective, particularly against a certain type of politician, regardless of their positions.

And, maybe, therein lies a problem for both Mitt and Rick.  It’s their personalities.  Both have one thing in common-their passion is limited to their personal interests.  They lack a joyous component that some of the best candidates have that insulates from the worst that others can throw.  Reagan had sunshine, Clinton enormous charisma.  But if Mitt is the local bank President who would turn you down for a loan, Rick owns the dry-cleaner and is head of the School Board-he’s the one responsible for keeping your 13 year old from reading Catcher In The Rye.  In a word, both are what my grandparents would have called “farbissen” -a little cold, a little sullen, a little remote.

Will New Hampshire notice?  It’s grey, and flinty, and tough.  Maybe it doesn’t care about warm and fuzzy? Too early to tell, but the early returns aren’t promising.   College students booed Santorum when he compared same sex marriage to polygamy.  And Romney trucked in John McCain for a macabre dog and pony show endorsement.

Times are tough, and the country is angry and searching for answers.  Does “farbissen” sell?  I guess we are going to find out.