Mitt Romney, the inevitable and unelectable man

Mitt Romney

It’s only another poll, but today’s news from Public Policy Polling that Rick Santorum has jumped out to a 38 percent to 23 percent lead over Mitt Romney prompts me ponder the fate of our former governor.

From the start, Romney’s candidacy has been defined by two dynamics.

On the one hand, there’s little doubt that he is absolutely unacceptable to right-wing Republicans, which is to say the people who actually comprise a majority of activists in the nominating process.

On the other hand, I can’t remember the last time a serious candidate for national office such as Romney was lucky enough to run against such a weak field of competitors. Santorum and Newt Gingrich are scarcely more credible than Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry. Ron Paul is running for his own purposes, which do not include becoming president. (Frankly, I’m not even sure that was Santorum’s or Gingrich’s goal when they first started running. Gingrich, in particular, mainly seemed interested in selling books and boosting his speaking fees.)

It’s because of my “one hand” that I believed until late last fall that Romney would never win the nomination. It’s because of my “other hand” that I gradually came to believe Romney had to win — and that, in fact, the health of our democracy depended on his keeping genuine loathsome characters such as Gingrich and Santorum as far away from the White House as possible.

After Florida, it looked like it was finally over, and that sullen Republicans would do what they were told. After Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota, what will happen next is anyone’s guess. Romney’s craven speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference won’t help him, and his never-ending repositioning on issues has left him with an unappetizing choice between trying to look like he believes in something — anything — or giving in to his urge to tell whatever audience he’s speaking to exactly what he imagines it wants to hear.

If there’s still an authentic Romney underneath all the phony exteriors he’s tried on and discarded, then it is probably someone without a real political orientation — a pragmatic problem-solver, too liberal for Republicans (outside of Massachusetts), too conservative for Democrats, too bloodless and unappealing to be able to turn those qualities into a virtue, the way Ross Perot briefly did a dozen years two decades ago. [Seems like it was just last week!]

I imagine Romney will turn the battleship around and aim the cannons of his Super PAC at Santorum. I’d guess that we’ll be hearing about disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s (as yet unproven) connection to the Republican Frontrunner of the Moment. It may work. And yes, if Romney does somehow manage to stagger to the nomination, he’ll still be a more formidable candidate against President Obama than any other Republican.

But what we’re watching now is a strange and disturbing dynamic, as Romney — someone whose qualifications and experience are impressive, whatever his shortcomings as a candidate — tries to pick his way through the ruins of a once-great political party that has collapsed into a vestigial appendage of the Fox News Channel.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Three quick thoughts about the Republican race

Flag of the Cayman Islands

Three quick observations about the state of the Republican presidential campaign:

• It’s been a very bad week for Mitt Romney. First came his peevish debate performance Monday night. Then came his admission that his tax rate is half that of ordinary Americans, followed by the revelation that he parks a great deal of his wealth in the Cayman Islands.

But one thing the media are unlikely to back down on is their insistence that he’s “two for two” going into Saturday’s South Carolina primary, even though we’ve known since Jan. 6 that Rick Santorum may have beaten him in the Iowa caucuses.

Now the Des Moines Register reports that the best numbers we’re ever going to get show Santorum ahead of Romney by 34 votes. Apparently the votes from eight precincts have been lost, so we’ll never know exactly who won.

Still, the media’s insistence that Romney had “won” Iowa by eight votes was never based on anything more than a provisional count that crumbled within hours. If it was all right to report that Romney won Iowa then, it’s certainly all right to say Santorum won Iowa now.

Does it matter? No. But it was the media that told us relentlessly and breathlessly for many months that it did matter. So surely it matters that Romney apparently came in a narrow second, eh?

• Will Fox News allow Sarah Palin to take part in its post-debate spin tonight now that she has essentially endorsed Newt Gingrich for president? Tune in and see.

• I thought it was crystal-clear that Gingrich was being racially provocative when he got into his food-stamp exchange with Juan Williams on Monday night, and I’m amazed by those who refuse to see it that way. So I was delighted to see this report from the road in today’s New York Times, which ends:

“I want to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for putting Mr. Juan Williams in his place,’’ she said.

The audience burst into sustained applause.

Any questions? And don’t miss Charles Pierce: “What Newt Gingrich is doing down here is running a campaign that is pure George Corley Wallace, straight out of 1968 and 1972.”

Thinking about Rick Santorum’s Google problem

Rick Santorum

As you probably know, if you Google the word “santorum,” the very first result will be an extremely offensive website created by the gay activist Dan Savage, who was responding several years ago to Rick Santorum’s disturbingly graphic opposition to homosexuality. (Weirdly, the term “google problem” now leads to the same sort of thing.)

Now that Santorum’s presidential campaign has gotten a sudden jolt of attention, the issue of Santorum and Google is being talked about once again. I’m still thinking this through. But aside from muttering “ewww,” I also believe Google is failing at its core search business by not doing something to move Savage’s prank down in its rankings.

Here’s why. The only reason you would have to be searching for information about Santorum is that you want to find out more about him. If you want to see Savage’s handiwork, you’re not searching for information — you just want to see what the fuss is all about, or you’re curious to see whether it’s still there. If the very first result you get is the Savage page, then Google has failed at its mission of providing you with useful, relevant information about your search term.

What to do about it? The problem, as I understand it, is that Google is loath to undertake any sort of editorial intervention with its search results. From time to time it changes its secret sauce in order to defeat those who are trying to game the system. It managed to eliminate  a racist photo of Michelle Obama by rewriting its search algorithm, for instance. But the company can’t really fix the Santorum problem without reaching in and doing it by hand. (For some non-geeky technical background on the Santorum issue, see this New York Times story by Noam Cohen and this Politico item by Ben Smith.)

Well, what of it? Wikipedia has considerably more adult supervision than it did in its earliest days, and is a better research tool as a result. Most people also prefer an edited news site to a robotically assembled compilation like Google News.

I’m not calling for censorship. Savage’s site shouldn’t be disappeared. But it seems fairly obvious to me that if the first two or three (or five or six) Google results regarding “santorum” ought to be about, you know, Rick Santorum.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Grumpy conservatives survey post-Iowa scene

Mitt Romney campaigning in Iowa — in 2007

This commentary is also online at the Huffington Post.

The conservative commentariat today is grumpy. And perhaps none is grumpier than Red State’s Erick Erickson, who’s unhappy not only with the Republicans’ eight-vote front-runner, Mitt Romney, but with his newly elevated conservative challenger, Rick Santorum.

Complaining that Santorum is a “big government conservative” in the tradition of George W. Bush, Erickson writes that the former Pennsylvania senator’s reputation as a retail politician is vastly overblown. “His campaign was not successful, it’s just all the others sucked so bad,” he says. Erickson’s improbable dream: a renewed effort by one-time Tea Party favorite Rick Perry, who’s gone home to Texas and who may be out of the race by the end of the day.

Aside from the impossibly thin margin separating Romney and Santorum, there was nothing about the Iowa caucuses that should have surprised anyone. For days it had been clear that Romney, Santorum and Ron Paul would be the three top finishers. And it remains Romney’s central dilemma that even though he seems the likely nominee, the conservatives who comprise the base of the Republican Party can’t stand him.

“He has all the king’s horses and all the king’s men supporting him, the print MSM and most segments on Fox News Channel in his favor, yet for the second time in four years, 75 percent of Iowa caucus-goers rejected him,” writes Kellyanne Conway at National Review. (Conway, a political consultant working for Newt Gingrich, nevertheless reserves her strongest praise for Santorum.)

Over at Slate, John Dickerson offers a startling statistic: According to entrance polls, Santorum beat Romney 36 percent to one percent among caucus-goers who wanted a true conservative. “Santorum is now the only Flavor of the Week candidate to actually win anything,” Dickerson says, “which makes him a genuine threat to Romney, at least for the moment.”

So what is a conservative to do? Daniel Larison’s response is to grouse. Writing at Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative, Larison mocks the notion that any of the Republicans who didn’t get into the race, like South Dakota senator John Thune or former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, could have stopped the Romney machine. Larison continues:

“It remains true that Romney shouldn’t be the nominee, and Republicans will regret nominating him, but it seems extremely unlikely at this stage that anything is going to prevent it from happening.”

At National Review, Jim Geraghty fingers the Ames Straw Poll as a principal source of conservative angst, since it prematurely ended the campaign of someone who might actually have beaten Romney:

“The Hawkeye State killed off the chances of a perfectly good candidate, Tim Pawlenty, in favor of his Minnesota rival Michele Bachmann, only to drop her like seventh-period Spanish by the time the actual caucuses rolled around.”

Yet if Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, really had that much potential, surely he should have been able to beat Bachmann, who is apparently headed for the exits as I write this. Maybe Pawlenty could have grown if he hadn’t been pushed out by a ridiculously early, meaningless test — or if, despite the Ames result, he’d kept working it, like Santorum, written off by everyone until just a few weeks ago. But in public, Pawlenty came off as being cut from the same cloth as Romney, a bit more conservative perhaps, but even less charismatic, if such a thing is possible.

At the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes predicts that conservatives will now coalesce around Santorum, creating a “one-on-one race” that “is exactly what Romney hoped to avoid at this stage.” And at the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan bizarrely (not to be redundant) proclaims that Romney emerges from Iowa a stronger candidate because he succeeded in vanquishing Gingrich, “a foe big enough that when you beat him it means something.”

The Pollyanna award goes to Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who thinks caucus-goers did themselves proud last night. “Presented with the weakest presidential field of any major party in a generation,” he writes, “they made the best of a bad situation, punching the three most deserving tickets without handing any of them a decisive victory.”

Which sounds like another way of saying — to echo Pat Caddell and John LeBoutillier on FoxNews.com last night — that the big winner of the Iowa caucuses was Barack Obama.

Photo (cc) by IowaPolitics.com and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Live-blogging tonight’s debate

If you’re interested — and even if you’re not — I’ll be live-blogging tonight’s Republican presidential debate, which begins at 9 p.m. on the Fox News Channel.

My apologies to those who subscribe to Media Nation by email. You may want to turn it off for the next few hours, as you will receive an email every time I update. The simplest solution is to send a blank email to media_nation-unsubscribe@yahoogroups.com. You can always join again later.

9:08 p.m. A little bit of a minefield for Newt Gingrich coming out of the box. He negotiated it pretty skillfully, although his saying that he teaches generals “the art of war” was laugh-out-loud funny.

9:51. Gingrich is mangling Jefferson and Marbury v. Madison. He says he understands it better than lawyers. Good luck with that.

9:53. I am so sick of listening to Bachmann and Santorum I could scream. At least watching Perry trying to negotiate a simple sentence is entertaining.

9:57. Perry managed to name three Supreme Court justices. Let the bandwagon start rolling again.

9:59. I’m bailing on the live-blog, and will be live-tweeting the second half of the debate here.

Live-blogging the Republican debate

The first Republican presidential debate to feature new frontrunner Rick Perry just ended. I saw two plausible presidents up there — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. Huntsman at this point is on nothing more than a personal ego trip.

Can Romney stop the Perry juggernaut? In large measure it depends on whether Perry’s ignorant, offensive performance tonight comes to be understood as ignorant and offensive. His anti-science views on global warming, his “Ponzi scheme” remarks on Social Security and his stumbling, almost incoherent speaking style should all be disqualifying. They’re not, and that says a lot about the modern Republican Party.

As for Romney — he’s simply not a smooth public performer, and I suspect it’s because he knows he’s surrounded by extremists and doesn’t dare say so.

I live-blogged the debate, which follows.

8:11 p.m. We begin with Mitt Romney and Rick Perry mixing it up while the other candidates are bystanders. Perry says Michael Dukakis created jobs at a faster rate than Romney, and Romney responds by saying the same was true of George W. Bush. Given who the audience is, I’d say Perry got the better of that exchange.

8:19. The backdrop is red, pink and orange. Very disconcerting.

8:20. Herman Cain was the first candidate to invoke God, and Newt Gingrich was the first to say “socialist.” Shall we have a drinking game? Maybe a glass of milk everytime Romney says “gosh”?

8:22. Romney’s explanation for why Massachusetts needed a health-insurance mandate is identical to President Obama’s explanation for why the U.S. needed a mandate.

8:28. Romney is getting creamed on health care. No good deed goes unpunished. It would be interesting if he turned to his fellow candidates and asked, “Why won’t you admit that the health-care mandate was a Republican idea?”

8:30. Far be it from me to defend the news media. Their behavior at these forums is frequently farcical and worse. But Gingrich’s rant against the media’s attempt to stir up trouble among the Republicans was as cynical and ludicrous a ploy as we’re likely to see all night.

@TPM puts it better: “Gingrich to moderators: Stop trying to make us debate!”

8:36. My former Guardian editor Richard Adams is writing a hilarious liveblog about the debate. One quibble: he refers to Gingrich as an “idiot loser.” Technically, he hasn’t lost yet.

8:45. No one has laid a glove on Perry. And Romney has disappeared.

8:50. Attacking Social Security has always worked so well for the Republicans. Good to hear Perry go there. Here are the facts about Social Security.

8:56. Well, this is interesting. Romney made an effective case for Social Security, and took it right to Perry — who responded with a semi-meltdown in which he doubled down on his “Ponzi scheme” nonsense and whined about being attacked. Perry’s stance is wrong and irresponsible on the merits, of course, but it won’t matter unless this gets highlighted as an important moment. (And no doubt everyone is dying to hear more from Cain about “the Chilean model.”)

Oh, good grief. Perry now is saying he feels like “the piñata at the party.” Does this guy have a glass jaw or what?

8:59. What Romney is thinking (I think) on Gardasil: Every one of you is nuts to oppose a simple measure that would protect the health of teenage girls, but I don’t dare say it in front of this crowd.

9:04. The skies have been remarkably safe in the 10 years since 9/11, and all anyone wants to talk about is abolishing or changing the FAA.

9:07. Would someone please vote Newt off the island?

9:08. Now we know why the debate couldn’t be held in Arizona.

9:12. Ah, illegal immigration. I miss Tom Tancredo. Remember his double fence, so that anyone trying to hop over the border would get stuck in the middle?

9:15. Has anyone noticed how much better Michele Bachmann is at this than Rick Perry?

9:19. Every so often, Ron Paul sounds like the most rational person up there. His remarks on illegal immigration were humane and sensible — in stark contrast to everyone else up there. Unfortunately, you can’t have that Ron Paul without the Ron Paul of the $300 silver dime.

9:26. Perry joins the rest of them in saying he would reject a deficit-cutting detail that specified $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. Now Huntsman is saying “no pledges.” Didn’t he make the 10-to-1 pledge in the last debate?

9:31. “Keynesian theory and Keynesian experiments are now done,” says Perry. Every one of these people is an economic illiterate except for Romney, and even he’s pretending to be illiterate. Nearly all mainstream economists agree that the problem with the stimulus was that it was too small and too tilted toward tax cuts. Most of the money that did get spent merely offset cuts to state and local government. You can’t say Keynesian economics doesn’t work when it hasn’t been tried. And thank you, Ms. Bachmann, for endorsing Muammar Qaddafi.

9:40. When I hear Perry stumble through his ignorant answer about global warming, I find it’s much healthier to focus on how nice Brian Williams’ new haircut looks.

9:44. The crowd loves death.

9:46. I’ll give Brian Williams and John Harris credit: they have concentrated on forcing Perry to defend the full range of his nutty and offensive views. We’ll see whether it makes any difference.

9:49. Russell Contreras: “As a reporter who covers immigration among other things, I gotta ask…why they gotta have the Latino reporter ask the immigration question during the GOP debate?! Why not have him ask about, I dunno, space exploration.” Great observation.

9:50. And that’s a wrap.

What did Dan Savage say about Scott Brown?

Republican political consultant Eric Fehrnstrom, whose clients include U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, issued a challenge to Media Nation on Twitter earlier today: “You should research some of the vile things that video maker Dan Savage has said about Scott Brown and other public figtures.”

Fehrnstrom was responding to my post asking why Brown didn’t take part in the “It Gets Better” video put together by the Massachusetts congressional delegation. Savage, a gay journalist and sex-advice columnist, is the originator of and driving force behind the “It Gets Better” campaign.

So, Media Nation readers, what of it? I am well aware of what Savage has said about former senator Rick Santorum. But to my mind, that doesn’t count, since Santorum had already said what Savage and his husband do in bed is just slightly more acceptable than “man on dog” sex or pedophilia. Nothing, no matter how vile, can top that.

I did a little idle Googling around and couldn’t really come up with anything Savage has ever said about Brown. But yes, I could have missed something. Please let me know in the comments.

Update: We have a winner! Check the comments.