Thursday, February 7, 2008

Calling the question

Today, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney abandoned his quest for the Republican nomination, and Arizona Sen. John McCain appealed to conservatives to rally around himself as the party’s presumptive nominee. This changes everything, and not just for the Republicans.

In one day, that intraparty discord within the GOP — something the Democrats have quietly but gleefully counted on (McCain vs. Romney vs. Mike Huckabee! Yippee!) — began to end. The coalescing that Republicans are historically known for is happening again, and the only valid counter for the Democrats is to achieve the same kind of intraparty unity, and fast, for exactly the same reasons.

Events unfolded today with a speed that even flummoxed the talking heads. Romney, essentially contradicting statements from the day before indicating his intention to stay in the race, today said “I have to stand aside” for the benefit of the party. He said he was “suspending” his campaign, but for all practical purposes there’s a do-not-resuscitate sign at the foot of his campaign’s bed.

It's probably been there for weeks, and certainly since the disappointments of Super Tuesday.

The Romney effort has shown how too much money, too little message and too on-message a messenger can doom a political campaign. It stems in some ways from a lack of heart, a failure of some basic conviction -- not the bottom-line determination of a CEO in a quest to make the numbers line up right on a SEC filing, but the organic connection to the people the candidate would hope to lead.

He never quite hooked up with people, especially in the south, where he tried hard. There's always been an airlessness about the Romney campaign, a stilted bigness about its everything (oversize net worth, oversize family, oversize pedigree), and a kind of hermetic perfection about the candidate, a man seemingly pitching the American people a business plan rather than a vision.

James Wolcott, in his blog on the Vanity Fair Web site, pulls no punches: “Is there anyone who gives more uninspired, tone-deaf election night speeches than Romney?--he slides right into his stump speech without realizing his poor wife and staffers are up there on stage, the forced expressions on their faces melting like cakes in the rain the longer he drones on. He's like an actor auditioning for a part that's already been filled and nobody has the heart to tell him.”

'Frank discussions'

Wednesday was a day of deep reflections at Rancho Romney. The campaign was auguring in, spiraling out of control despite the millions spent, at least $40 mil from his own kitty — a burn rate of personal campaign cash that extrapolates to $254,777 for each of the 157 delegates Romney nailed down before he closed up shop.

Even before most of the voting was done Tuesday night, the Romney camp released a statement saying that Wednesday would be a day of "frank discusssions" for the campaign, with some announcement later in the day detailing the strategy going forward. The brain trust hunkered down in Boston and sure enough, the campaign said later that they planned to stay in the fight a while longer, despite not getting the results they'd wargamed.

Then came Thursday's change of mind. “Because I love America, in this time of war, I feel I have to stand aside for our party and our country,” Romney said at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

Later in the day, after some nasty comments by rightwingnut author and commentator Laura Ingraham at the conference, McCain spoke (amid catcalls and shouts of “RINO!” [Republican In Name Only]) in his own defense, throwing an olive branch to the wolves before him.

“I am proud, very proud, to have come to public office as a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution,” he said. His more controversial views, such as easing immigration restrictions (a logical consequence of his role in a border state) and tweaking campaign finance laws, have kept him under fire with Republicans for years.

"I know I have a responsibility, if I am, as I hope to be, the Republican nominee for president, to unite the party and prepare for the great contest in November," McCain said. "And I am acutely aware that I cannot succeed in that endeavor, nor can our party prevail over the challenge we will face from either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, without the support of dedicated conservatives.

"It is my sincere hope that even if you believe I have occasionally erred in my reasoning as a fellow conservative, you will still allow that I have, in many ways important to all of us, maintained the record of a conservative," McCain said.

Others are not convinced. “Boy, the narrower this race gets, I’m surprised to find myself wishing Fred Thompson was still in the running,” said blogger Skull Dugger, on the New York Times Web site. “ ‘Go McCain!’ I guess (bewildered sigh).”

There’s still unfinished business left for the GOP. Some people will be waiting for Ron Paul to pull the plug on the respirator for his campaign, a White House bid that, for all the tantalizing PR he got as an insurgent Republican, never got much attention from the beginning. They probably won’t wait long. Paul’s maverick message — withdrawal from NATO and the UN, ending the federal income tax, troops out of Iraq immediately — never gained traction within the party, and his four delegates don’t figure in the outcome of the race. With all due respect for a sincere and principled effort, Paul’s fifteen minutes were up ten minutes ago.


Of greater concern is the Mike Huckabee factor. Popular with evangelicals, the affable, sharp-witted former Krispy Kreme enthusiast and former governor of Arkansas is the wild electron now, despite ending Super Tuesday with fewer delegates than Romney.

His lock on the indispensable southern states, proven with his five wins, and a personality more voluble, accessible and telegenic than McCain’s, make him, among other things, a natural for the Vice President spot. McCain is said not to like him any more than he did Romney —does John McCain like anybody? — but Huckabee may be the hemlock McCain needs to drink to keep himself alive.

The blogosphere is already aflame over the prospect. Even talk-radio Doberman, former pharmaceutical enthusiast and media Prince of Darkness Rush Limbaugh is pushing a McCain-Huckabee ticket. “Here’s the thing about McCain: he can’t win conservatives in the South by virtue of this primary yesterday,” Limbaugh said Wednesday. “These blue states that McCain won last night are places where he has no chance in November.”

Such an idea for the GOP ticket presents problems for McCain, whose political temperament is way more moderate than Limbaugh. It might be something he’s considering already, but like the man who’s asked by his girlfriend to get married, he’d like to think it was his idea.

But Romney’s exit and the fallout from it really changes the dynamic for the Democrats. In the post “A merger of equals,” the idea was floated that, simply put, an Obama-Clinton tie-up (or a Clinton-Obama ticket) concentrates the mind and heart of the American electorate, consolidates party resources, and indicates a willingness to set aside comparatively minor differences for the good of the Democratic party. That fanciful scenario takes on new weight today.

As the Republicans seem to be about to put past differences behind them, it’s, shall we say, incumbent on the Democrats to do exactly the same thing. Considering the calculus that’s beginning to emerge, a Obama-Clinton/Clinton-Obama ticket isn’t an option, it’s pretty much a necessity.

Putting it all together

Consider what each will bring to the other:

Obama’s bona fides with younger voters, minority voters and independents, proven on Super Tuesday and before, dovetail nicely with Clinton’s strengths among women voters — a significant percentage of the Democratic demographic — and older voters.

A unified bid between the two instantly makes fundraising a far easier exercise, especially for the Clinton camp, whose workers are said to include some asked to work for free (this before the candidate herself ponied up $5 mil to keep things liquid). A joining of fundraising forces over the Internet would turn a very strong Democratic year for political donations into a stellar one.

A Clinton-Obama/Obama-Clinton ticket permanently cements the historic aspects of their mutual candidacies into a single, compelling force of profound historical significance. Intangible? So much the better. People like playing a role in making history. They’ll turn out for that.

And in one lightning stroke, the American people, up to now faced with the choice of either Experience or Change, can have both — the two best attributes of contemporary Democratic leadership assembled in a formidable package that would give the Republicans all they can handle in the fall.

The outcome on Super Tuesday should have been an object lesson to the Dems. When the smoke cleared and the votes were counted, the difference in raw popular-vote totals between Obama and Clinton that day amounted to .4 of 1%. There probably hasn’t been a narrower national vote of any kind, in the primary season or after the general, since Kennedy-Nixon in 1960.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s of course a matter of timing. The primaries and caucuses between now and June need to run their course. But the gravitational process between both Obama and Clinton, that reach for commonalities instead of conflicts, should be starting very soon and, by the first days of June, should be very public.

For Clinton and Obama to come to terms sooner rather than later saves time, money and energy; unites assets that belong together on the basis of party unity, and heads off the nightmare prospect of a bruising brokered convention in August — something that would evoke for voters exactly the disunity and deadlock the Democrats don't need.

With rancor from within coming to a fever pitch, the Republican party has begun the process of closing ranks and redefining itself, conceding that, despite a constant pursuit of ideological purity, sometimes it’s realpolitik that gets the job done.

Obama and Clinton need to learn that lesson too. For the Democrats still standing, the time’s coming to see the power in the political version of economies of scale. The fact that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have each campaigned behind the idea of building a national coalition presents a compelling (if not unavoidable) opportunity: recognizing the need to first build a coalition of their own.
Image credits: Ron Paul: Bbsrock, reproduced under GNU Free Documentation license. Huckabee: ©2008 David Ball.

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