In the Arena

Slow Death in Michigan: Why the Drawn-Out GOP Primary Is Nothing Like 2008

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After a long, long weekend in Michigan watching Romney and Santorum, I have no strong feelings about who is going to win–put a gun to my head and I’ll say Romney–but I do know that this Republican race has become a victorless crime, a mortal snooze. Those few Republicans who are not so dispirited by this mess that they’re still willing to attempt spin try to make the argument that this is like the Democrats in 2008, a long, messy battle that won’t hurt the party in the fall. Wrong. This is the opposite of the Dems in 2008.

That campaign was endlessly fascinating. You had two first-rate candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, trading substantive policy proposals along with some significant, but not devastating, barbs. Their contest invigorated the Democratic Party. At this point 4 years ago, Clinton seemed doomed after Obama swept through the February caucus states–but she bounced back on Super Tuesday and really hit her stride as a campaigner in Pennsylvania in April. More to the point, neither candidate took positions that would hurt them with the general electorate in the fall–and neither of them took stands that appeared to come from Mars.

(MOREThe Republican Race Looks Murky, in Michigan and Beyond)

2012 is the precise opposite: each of the Republicans–with the exception of Ron Paul–has diminished himself during the course of this campaign. Each has taken positions that will be difficult to sustain in a general election–all you need to do is listen to Romney or Santorum slamming “entitlements” in a country where Medicare and Social Security are the two most popular government programs. (Which is not to say that both programs shouldn’t be reformed, but Romney’s broad brush criticism of a liberal “Entitlement Society” versus a conservative “Opportunity Society” just doesn’t reflect life as most Americans live it.)

And each of the candidates have made fools of themselves in ways that Obama and Clinton never did. Newt Gingrich said he was hired as a consultant for Freddie Mac because he was a “historian.” He has said that Obama is the most dangerous and radical President in history. He has said this is the most important election since 1860. To which, one can only say: he is the most apoplectic presidential candidate in, well, eons! Romney’s gaffes–each an innocent blunder in its way–have slowly painted the picture of a clueless rich guy. And what can one say about Santorum? I’m on the record praising him for having the courage of his convictions, but, not to put too fine a point on it–the guy is something of a jerk. I mean, calling the President a snob because he posited a society where every kid should go to college? I know what Santorum meant–that we’ve oversold 4 year colleges and undersold technical training–but community colleges, where necessary tech training takes place, are colleges, too. And saying that John Kennedy’s speech to the Houston ministers made him want to vomit? That speech, arguably, made it possible for a Roman Catholic to be elected President.

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And so we are left with the following scenario: Even if Romney wins Michigan, he doesn’t gain all that much (if he loses, it’s panic city). If Romney wins, his momentum won’t last long. Next week, the Super Tuesday results are likely to splinter–with Romney winning his New England and Mormon West turf, Gingrich winning Georgia and Santorum looking strong in Ohio and much of the rest of the south and southwest.

In the end, I suppose, Romney must still be considered the favorite to win the nomination. But he has been dragged well right of the American mainstream, and he has proved himself a brittle campaigner who lacks the confidence even to answer questions from the public at his rallies–and who, when he slips, slips into $10,000 bets and twin cadillacs and rhapsodies on the joys of firing people. The sad thing is that Romney, especially, has a potentially important case to make against the economy as Barack Obama has chosen to run it.  But at this point, the messenger is as damaged as a used Nash Rambler.

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