Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Mitt & Newt Show

The frontrunner is by definition the messenger, but the party’s rank and file don’t think he believes the message. The guy in second place thoroughly believes the message, but the party’s rank and file don’t think he’s a good messenger.

That, in a nutshell, is the central dilemma of the Mitt & Newt Show, an extension of the long-playing political dramedy/reality series we’ve seen for six months. And it’s coming to a primary-ready state near you. Wherever “you” are.

The results of tonight’s Florida Primary were no surprise; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney flattened former House Speaker Newt Gingrich by 14 percentage points in the first primary that really reflects what the rest of the country looks like. What shapes up now is a battle of wills, a battle that’s likely to reveal, like nothing else can, what’s really animating these campaigns.

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There’s a degree of the personal in this quest for both of them. For Romney, the campaign is a chance to both avenge his father’s loss of the presidency in the crucible year of 1968, and to exorcise his own demons from his failed presidential bid in 2008.

It’s been a talking point for longer than it should have been: Romney’s win in Florida would All But Secure Him the Nomination. By this point, the script went, Mitt was expected to have everyone in line. The fact that Gingrich is spoiling the scenario by sticking to the principles of a bedrock conservative, and calling Romney’s own convictions into question, is a huge problem for Team Mittens.

Among other things, it’s giving Romney time to get into trouble, optically speaking.

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It’s early in the campaign season, but Romney’s already given us one of the choicest goofs we’re likely to see, a moment of comedy and something approaching pity.

At a campaign stop on Saturday in The Villages, Fla., Romney was speaking the words to “America the Beautiful.” Then at one point, deciding that speaking the words wasn’t enough, the frontrunner switches to singing. For a minute that felt like five.

There’s something sad about a singer calling for a sing-along moment and getting something other than spirited response from his audience. Many in the Romney crowd did sing, though, maybe more out of expedient duty to the moment than from any spasmodic outburst of nationalistic pride. By some acclimation of surprise, and maybe even horror, others seemed to watch Mitt in relative silence, pitying the shameless, patriotically oleaginous buffoon on stage before them. They seemed to tolerate him, like they might tolerate the pastor who farts in his own church.

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Their sense of obligation to the party overlooked the candidate’s shortcomings as a singer; his more important tone-deafness relates to the electorate he’s trying to lead. That tone-deafness extends to the truth of his main message, his alleged expertise Working in the Private Sector. According to various sources, the Romney campaign and the so-called SuperPACs that work independently on his behalf, ran $16 million in Florida TV advertising in the runup to the primary. For one conservative water carrier, that airtime was badly misused.

Joe Scarborough, the former Florida congressman and now the host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” a man with whom we differ on everything but the color of the sky, got it right on “Hardball” on Monday, when asked about the wisdom of spending that much money to attack an opponent, and nothing else.

“If you use the $16 million to say, ‘this is how I’m gonna save Medicare, this is how I’m gonna balance the budget, this is how I’m gonna get the troops home from Afghanistan — that helps. The problem here is you’ve got Mitt Romney running a campaign without meaning. Negative attack ads using Democratic ethics attacks against Newt Gingrich, and then he goes on the campaign trail, and his punch line is reciting the words to ‘America the Beautiful.’”

For Mr. Private Sector, this is apparently the best use of $16 million in Florida major-market airtime: not to craft a message and a vision people can get their hearts around, not to make yourself look even remotely presidential, but mostly to tele-bludgeon your opponent with old charges that scarcely register today.

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Gingrich’s problem is something else again. For Newt the Man of Sullied Honor, this is a very personal matter. Want proof? When he spoke to supporters after the Florida loss, he neither mentioned Romney by name nor conceded defeat — a protocol of modern campaign etiquette. Still smarting from the beating he took in the Florida TV ad market — Romney’s ads swamped Gingrich’s by a ratio of 65:1, and most of them negative — Gingrich has decided to settle accounts. Whatever it takes.

There’s vengeance behind the eyes of Newt Gingrich, not a generalized desire for familial vengeance, like the sense of mission Mitt has about fulfilling his family’s destiny, but a deeply personal quest for payback against the “Massachusetts moderate” whom Newt thinks would buy the presidential election if he thought he could.

And as much as anything else, for Newt Gingrich, there’s a hope of achieving a kind of vengeance against the great equalizer: the big clock. Gingrich is 68 years old, and the scorched-earth aspects of the campaign he’s already run, one of burning friends and enemies alike, won’t allow for a Next Time. Newt has a sense of total commitment to this campaign; he’s in it up to his short and curlies for the simplest reason there is: For Newt, there’s no tomorrow. This is his last hurrah and he knows it.

Samuel Johnson clearly understood Gingrich’s situation, in an expression of another kind of mortality: Depend upon it, sir: When a man knows his political career likely concludes with the end of his current campaign, it concentrates his mind, heart and soul wonderfully. For Newt Gingrich post-Florida, a formidable ego and a history as a political scrapper are now combined with that most dangerous trait of any animal, political or otherwise: that sense, when cornered, of having absolutely Nothing to Lose.

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And that’s the cast of the show yet to come. Oh, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum are still formally, officially in the race, but not really. Santorum — a decent, principled candidate with moments of possibility — never really caught fire after Iowa, and Paul sounds more unhinged with every passing day.

No, it’s the Mitt & Newt Show for the foreseeable. These are the principals in the cage match that realistically starts tomorrow morning and ends, possibly, in Tampa, Fla., in August, with blood on the convention hall floor.

Whose blue blood will it be? Romney’s, Gingrich’s, or that of the Republican Party? Never has a cliffhanger had so many cliffs to be navigated.

Image credits: Romney: Via The Huffington Post. Newt and Calista Gingrich: Associated Press, via The Huffington Post.

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