The Santorum Surprise

Eight votes. That’s all that separated Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum once the Iowa caucuses ended. Technically, Romney was the winner, but one has to excuse Santorum for feeling as if he took the prize. Two weeks ago, no one saw this in the making; one week ago, though polls showed a Santorum surge, few could have guessed it would turn out this way.

Even the speeches given by both at the end of a long night marked the contrast: Santorum’s was, as many have commented, inspiring and from the heart, while Romney’s was a rehash of campaign rhetoric. Another factor that impressed me was the way Santorum identified with blue-collar workers because that was his family’s background. The story of his grandfather was Reaganesque, and while nearly every candidate has taken it upon himself or herself to embrace the Reagan mantle, Santorum has come closest to the actual spirit of the 40th president. One of the keys to Reagan’s success was his ability to relate to the so-called “common man.” If Santorum can do the same, he may continue to surprise.

What does this mean for him going forward? The climb to the nomination will be steep regardless of the Iowa infusion of adrenaline. New Hampshire, the first primary state, is Romney territory. Can Santorum build on his momentum and carve out a niche there large enough to keep the buzz alive? It’s then on to South Carolina, whose primary voters are more like Iowa’s than New Hampshire’s. Can he pull out a clear-cut victory in the Palmetto State?

One positive factor for him is the withdrawal of Michele Bachmann from the race. The most conservative candidates—Santorum, Bachmann, and Perry—have split the conservative vote. Now that she is no longer on the ballot, that could help Santorum. Although her numbers were not high in either New Hampshire or South Carolina, even a few more percentage points could make the difference. If Santorum had Bachmann’s 5% in Iowa, he would have run away with the top spot.

It looked like Perry was going to drop out as well, only to surprise even his own team by deciding to move on to South Carolina. That’s too bad. I like Perry, but he has no real chance at getting the nomination. His only contribution now will be to draw votes from Santorum, thereby giving Romney a greater opportunity to stay at the top.

The case with Gingrich is somewhat more complex. He is angry, and that anger is directed at Romney. He already has a full-page ad running in New Hampshire newspapers contrasting his conservatism with Romney’s moderate stance. He’s fighting back. That could re-energize his campaign, which might lower Romney’s numbers, yet it also could detract from Santorum’s, thereby creating a wash and maintaining the status quo.

Ron Paul, meanwhile, by coming in third, will put the best face on the result, but has to be disappointed. So many of the polls had him number one; perhaps his foreign policy views finally caught up with him. As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t feel safe with Paul as commander-in-chief. He doesn’t really grasp the dangers we face from radical Islam. Let’s be honest: he’s more of a libertarian than a Republican. Iowa was his best shot; it will be downhill from this point for him. It’s time to pack it in and reject calls for a third-party candidacy that can only end in the reelection of Obama.

No matter what happens in New Hampshire, the race will not be decided there. Neither do I think South Carolina will serve that purpose. As a Floridian, I’m glad I will be able to participate in a primary with significance later this month. The media may want to call this for Romney at every point along the way, but that will be premature. Keep watching for surprises. I have this feeling there are more in the offing.

The Current Crop of Contenders

As a historian, I believe I’m somewhat prepared for less than perfection. I mean, in studying history, one realizes that the really principled people are fewer than they should be, and that we have to settle, more often than not, for less than the ideal. That applies to policies and people.

As I ponder the lineup of contenders for the Republican nomination this year, I’m reminded of that historical lesson. The two top prospects that I had counted on running opted out, leaving a field of potential nominees that are more flawed than usual, in my view. Now that doesn’t mean all are flawed in character, but there’s something in each one that makes him/her far less suited to the presidential role than others I would have chosen.

The one man who keeps bobbing to the surface is Mitt Romney. Conservatives are highly suspect of him, and rightly so. The apologist for Romneycare can hardly be expected to take it to Obama for his dramatic overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system. Any arguments Romney uses against Obama on that front won’t carry much conviction. In fact, it’s in the area of conviction that he’s questioned the most. Is he really pro-life? Is he squishy on homosexual marriage, based on his experience in Massachusetts? Those are important to me, and quite frankly, I don’t trust him. This is why he has a hard time staying on top of the polls. There are simply too many issues about his “core”:

Meanwhile, the conservatives can’t find one candidate around which to rally. Santorum is appealing to some, and he just got the endorsement of a key family issues organization as well as one of the leaders of social conservatives in Iowa. Will that make a difference? How does he overcome the image of a loser after his overwhelming defeat to retain his Senate seat? Bachmann is forceful, but seems too opportunistic. She will attack with relish anyone who is rising above her, even those she used to praise. A little self-serving, perhaps? Perry may have good perspectives and fine ideas, but will he ever be able to communicate them effectively? Paul is a doctrinaire libertarian, not a conservative. On foreign policy, he is little different than the most radical leftist who blames America for everything. Gingrich is a big question mark. He might be a great president, or he might be a disaster. I sense there will be no middle ground with him if he gets the office.

Where does this leave us?

As I said at the beginning, I don’t expect perfection, and sometimes politicians develop into real leaders unexpectedly. This may happen with someone in the current crop of contenders. But are we sure it’s too late for someone else to jump in and shake things up? I would welcome it.

The Iowa Debate

We’re only a couple of weeks away from the Iowa caucuses. Last night Fox News sponsored a Republican debate in Sioux City, the last opportunity for each of the candidates to take their message to a widespread audience. The polls, prior to the debate, have been dynamic in the sense that one can’t really tell who has the upper hand right now. Gingrich leads in some, Romney in another, Paul rising rapidly.

So who was helped and who was hurt by what transpired last night? I watched the whole thing, so I do have some thoughts on that. Let’s start with those at the low end of the polls and work our way up.

Huntsman sounded credible, but still comes across as arrogant and condescending, as if he is the only smart guy in the room and has to lower himself and his rhetoric to make the others understand his wisdom. While some of his answers were fine, there’s no way this debate will elevate his numbers.

Santorum, as always, didn’t get as much airtime as the others, but he took advantage of the time he had to offer sound arguments on national security. He also fired directly at Romney on the issue of same-sex marriage, taking him to task for allowing it to happen in Massachusetts on his watch. What I would like to have happen, I think, is for Santorum to be either the Secretary of Defense or Secretary of Health & Human Services in an upcoming Republican administration. That’s his niche, not the presidency.

Bachmann is someone I want very much to like, but she keeps shoving me away by her strident attacks. Yes, she’s solid on issues, and I appreciate that in her, but she doesn’t come across as presidential, and I’m not at all sure she always has her facts straight. Her insecurity revealed itself when she commented that she was a serious candidate for the presidency. If you have to make that statement, you’ve already lost the argument. It’s like a manager of whatever enterprise, or the head of some department instructing his/her underlings that he/she really is in charge. What Bachmann needs to do is bide her time and run for the Minnesota Senate seat currently occupied by a national embarrassment named Al Franken. She would serve the nation well in that role.

Perry was very likeable this time around. He probably was the most relaxed aspirant on the stage. His ability to poke fun at himself while still offering a conservative critique of current issues was a winning combination. Does that mean he has erased my concerns from earlier debates? Not by a long shot. I’m still not convinced he’s ready for prime time as a presidential contender. Images of a debate with Obama continue to haunt. For me to feel comfortable with him as the Republican choice, he’s going to have to not only maintain what he accomplished last night, but steadily improve.

Paul was his consistent self. That worked well when talking about basic constitutional issues dealing with the economy and scope of government, but I believe he hurt himself big time with his commentary on Iran and the threat to the United States. He sees no real threat, and spent most of his time claiming that his own party is a warmongering entity out to alienate the entire Muslim world. It almost descended into a rant, and I actually felt sorry for him in the middle of it. While I respect Paul’s devotion to constitutionalism, he is a disaster on foreign policy. One can disagree with aggressive nation-building policies without denigrating honest attempts to eliminate Islamic terrorism. He continues to believe that diplomacy will work with Iran. That is foolish and unrealistic. Paul’s numbers were rising prior to this debate; I wouldn’t be surprised to see them plummet now. If the audience was any indication, he’s in trouble. They booed him lustily a couple of times.

Romney was Romney. I’ve said enough about him in previous posts. You know he’s not my favorite for a variety of reasons. He did nothing last night to change my mind. Does he look and sound presidential? Yes. Am I convinced he’s a genuine conservative who can be trusted? No.

Gingrich had to take a lot of heat. At times, he may not have convinced the audience that the charges were unfair, particularly on his role as advisor for Fannie and Freddie. Yet he was steadfast in asserting he was not beholden to them, and that his primary concern was a conservative one—helping people afford housing. He distanced himself from Barney Frank and Chris Dodd on the issue, saying his vision was not the same as welfare-state Democrats. I believe him on that, but appearances are what some people see first and find hard to forget. He was strong on a number of issues—the out-of-control judiciary, for example. Like Perry, he communicated a sense of humor about himself at times, such as when he said he was busy editing his comments in his mind before speaking so he wouldn’t be accused of being “zany,” a Romney critique this past week. On most points, he acquitted himself well.

I will be voting in the Florida primary next month. I’m still assessing the candidates, but I’m giving my hardest look right now to Gingrich. I want to believe he’s for real. I want to believe the old Gingrich has been left behind with respect to his infidelities. I want to believe he can win the general election. I want . . . but remain unconvinced. I’m just glad the primary isn’t today. I have more time to consider.

Romney vs. the Anti-Romney

In discussing the race for the Republican presidential nomination, my goal has been to be forthright and honest about why I believe certain candidates are not the best options, and I’ve also made it pretty clear where my sympathies lie. What it comes to down to is either Romney or the anti-Romney.

Romney is the establishment’s choice. He will never upset the status quo, and he won’t make them nervous with deeply held convictions. A list of issues where he has changed from one side to the other is rather extensive: abortion; amnesty for illegals; tax cuts; gun control; global warming . . .

About the only thing he’s remained solid on is his support for Romneycare, which included an individual mandate and has kept healthcare costs in Massachusetts higher than in any other state.

Is this really what we want as the standard-bearer for Republicanism? Can’t you just see Obama rejoicing that his own disastrous healthcare debacle will be taken off the table as an issue in the campaign if Romney is the candidate? How can Romney, with credibility, attack that plan?

So, as I said, it’s either Romney or the anti-Romney. Who will take up that mantle? Let’s be honest–neither Santorum nor Bachmann has a chance at the nomination. Ron Paul, as I’ve said before, has ardent supporters [so ardent that they sometimes cross the line into rudeness], but not breadth of support. He’ll never get the nomination. Perry has self-destructed. While his supporters believe he can make a comeback, I’d rate that as improbable. Neither is it desirable, in my estimation, due to his lack of debating skill. He would be trounced by Obama on stage. Gingrich is smart, knowledgeable, and great in debate, but has too much of a history of alienating people to be able to unite either the party or the nation.

That leaves Herman Cain. Yes, I know there are some questions about his grasp of foreign affairs, yet he told Sean Hannity this week that he has devoted himself to studying those issues to the point where he believes he will know more about them than his questioners. He confused people with his abortion comments, but the context in which he stated them was relegated to the rare cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Most seem to miss that point.

What he does bring to the race is a solid and successful business background that emphasized problem-solving. He also brings a spirit of joy and he inspires those who hear him speak. No, this is not an Obama rerun—Cain is common sense and speaks to the people, not down to them. He also has the added promise of drawing black voters to the GOP in numbers no one would imagine possible. If he is the candidate, the racism issue should die a much-deserved death.

Currently, Cain is either tied or ahead of Romney in most polls except New Hampshire. His financial backing is on the rise, which has also allowed him to expand his field team in key states. People are asking whether he’s for real. The media has been slow to pick up on this phenomenon:

Cain’s increased prominence has the potential to alter stereotypical thinking:

It’s still too early to predict that Cain’s upswing will continue. You never can tell what is around the bend in politics. But it would be the height of folly to dismiss him as a serious candidate. The Republican establishment turned its back on Barry Goldwater in 1964 and it ridiculed Ronald Reagan when he challenged Gerald Ford in 1976 and when he ran again in 1980. The establishment got its way with Goldwater, but was stunned by Reagan. May it be stunned again—that is my prayer.

Ponderings on the Debate

I watched the entire two hours of the Republican presidential debate last night. I’m not going to try to analyze the performance of everyone on the stage; I don’t want to write a book this morning, just a blog post. So here are the highlights—the things that stood out to me.

I want to like Rick Perry. I welcomed him to the race and hoped he would be “the man.” After last night, my estimation of him plunged. He was tentative, inarticulate most of the time, and stiff. The image that kept going through my mind was how Obama would wipe the floor with him in any general election debate. The only time he came across as articulate was when he was defending the indefensible—subsidizing college tuition for illegal immigrants. All I could think was, “Is this to be the Republican standard-bearer?” It was not a comforting thought.

In his back-and-forth dialogue with Romney, he clearly came out worse. That’s disturbing, simply because Romney is no one to count on as a consistent conservative with a message. What we need is someone who will challenge the status quo in areas such as the tax code and Social Security. Romney, as evidenced again last night, is Mr. Status Quo on issues like those. He is smooth and soothing, which would wear well in a general election, but if elected, then what? We would be no closer to making the kinds of changes that are essential for the future of the country. He would also pull the GOP more to the center, imitating the GOP of the 1950s and 1960s—half-Democrats.

Newt Gingrich, as always, shines in these formats, but my opinion of him as presidential candidate hasn’t altered. No chance. Michele Bachmann, I’m afraid, has reached her zenith and is now on a downward trajectory. She did nothing last night to change that trajectory.

The strongest voices for traditional Christian morality on the stage were Herman Cain and Rick Santorum. Yet Cain added something Santorum lacked, which was a specific plan for economic recovery. He also received the warmest applause, not only from the audience but from his colleagues, when he spoke about how he would be dead now if Obamacare had been in place during his cancer treatments. He was inspiring and dead-on in his evaluation of what Obamacare will “accomplish.” What made it even more effective, of course, was the personal angle.

I make these comments before having read what other pundits thought about last night. I will ponder their ponderings throughout the day. I will remain open to modifying my views, but what I have offered is a combination of first impressions and a lifetime of political analysis. Take it for whatever you think it’s worth.

Surveying the Republican Field

I’ve been rather silent lately on the Republican field of presidential hopefuls. Now that the field seems more settled, and we’ve had a couple of debates that include newcomer Rick Perry, I’d like to offer a few thoughts about the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. There are some I favor over others for one reason or another, but one thing is crystal clear—no matter who the nominee will be, it will be improvement on Obama. Even if my least desired candidate wins this nomination, nothing could compel me to vote for another four years of what we have experienced since January 2009.

The latest debate was in Tampa, just down the road from me, less than thirty minutes from my home. I didn’t attend; neither did I watch it live, but I picked up on some of the highlights by watching video clips and hearing/reading commentary. Here is the field of dreams, so to speak:

In order to be fair and not show any favoritism, let me take them alphabetically.

Michele Bachmann: She is a true believer in the Tea Party principles, which focus on fidelity to the Constitution and reining in the power of the federal government. Her background as a tax lawyer is a positive, as well as the wonderful testimony of caring for more than twenty foster children. Her Christian faith seems to be genuine. I have no issues with her as a person. There are some negatives, though. She has little or no executive experience, and there are tales circulating that she has not shown any particular management skills. Historically, the last time anyone jumped from the House of Representatives to the White House was in 1880, when Ohio congressman James Garfield emerged as a dark horse nominee for Republicans. The uphill climb is steep for Bachmann, and the odds are not very good. If she should win the nomination, could she pull in voters outside of the true believers in her principles?

Herman Cain: I love his spirit and his Christian testimony. His experience at surviving stage four cancer is inspiring. He also has an excellent record in the private sector, turning companies around and making them successful, the chief of these being Godfather’s Pizza. I also believe he understands the economy—what works and what doesn’t. He makes a lot of sense. His lack of government experience is viewed by many as a negative; for others, it is a positive. The odds for him gaining the nomination are slim, but he does poll very high on the likeability scale. Next week, I’ll be sitting at a table with Cain at a Republican meeting here in my Florida county. I look forward to getting to know the man better. If he doesn’t get the nomination, why not a place at the political table, perhaps as secretary of the treasury?

Newt Gingrich: The former Speaker of the House is a cautionary tale for all aspiring political leaders. He was the architect of the Republican ascendancy in the mid-1990s. His Contract with America was the basis for taking back the Congress in 1994. Yet once he had the power, he was cleverly outplayed by Bill Clinton, and was accused of shutting down the government. For the rest of his tenure, he was off his game. He still brims with constant ideas; his spirited and intelligent performance in the debates wins heartfelt applause from the audiences, yet his poll numbers remain low. The problem is he’s damaged goods. He not only failed as House Speaker, but he failed in his personal life. Three marriages will leave a lasting impression. He says he’s turned the corner on his personal failings, but his time has come and gone. No chance.

Jon Huntsman: Former Utah governor. Also former ambassador to China—appointed by Barack Obama. His views are the most liberal of the field. He is the darling of the Sunday talk shows even though consistently polling at 1%. He also comes across as sanctimonious. Not a prayer. No need to waste any more space in this blog.

Ron Paul: He commands perhaps the most fervent followers of any candidate. Yet his appeal is rather limited to those followers. His strength is his desire to ensure that the Constitution is honored. His weaknesses, unfortunately, are many. In my view, he doesn’t really understand the threats we face from nations such as Iran; he even said they have a right to possess nuclear weapons. While I agree that we don’t need to stick our national nose into every other country’s problems, his isolationism is untenable in this world as it exists today.And I have zero patience with his “blame America” rhetoric for 9/11. He’s no better than the most rabid leftist with that viewpoint. While there might be some valid reasons for opposing a fence on the Mexican border, his comment that someday the government might use it to keep Americans from escaping [apparently seeing a similarity with the late and unlamented Berlin Wall] is, as analyst Charles Krauthammer commented, “weird.” I have no confidence that a President Paul would do what’s necessary to protect this country.

Rick Perry: The Texas governor’s entrance into the race elicited quite a bit of excitement, and he almost immediately shot to the top of the polls, riding the wave of the good economic news from his state. He’s also made a name for himself as a staunch defender of federalism—wherein states are not overawed by the federal government and maintain control of their own affairs. Perry also courageously told the truth about Social Security. His weaknesses, though, have surfaced, particularly in the last debate. He believes in allowing illegal immigrants to have in-state tuition costs for college. He opposes a fence along the Mexican border [though he does call for stronger border security in other ways]. He tried to force, by executive order, all twelve-year-old girls in Texas to be inoculated against a certain sexually transmitted disease. Yes, there was an opt out for parents, but critics suggest it should have been an opt in, or not promoted at all. There are suspicions he is not the small-government conservative he claims to be. The verdict is still out. He could be the real thing with a few flaws, or he could be hiding his true views. I will continue to watch, listen, and learn. I’m really trying to be open on Perry and not prejudge. I still need more time to determine what I believe about him.

Mitt Romney: In a blog post several weeks ago, I basically said I cannot support Romney for the nomination. My views have not changed. Frankly, I don’t trust that he’s the real deal. He used to be pro-choice; now he says he’s pro-life. Is he? What proof do we have? He is the author of Romneycare in Massachusetts, the forerunner and one of the inspirations for Obamacare. The individual mandate in the Massachusetts law should disqualify him for the nomination. Honestly, I don’t know why so many Republicans see him as the salvation of the party. If he should win the nomination, I believe he has a good chance of toppling Obama in the general election [Republican pragmatists believe this ardently], but what will that mean for the Republican party and the nation? Will he really keep his promise to overturn Obamacare when he can’t bring himself to admit his plan was wrong? Does he truly have solid principles grounded in constitutional authority? Sorry, but my doubts abound.

Rick Santorum: A genuinely good guy, solid on all the social issues and an advocate of a strong defense. When it comes to policy and worldview, I have no quarrel at all with Santorum. I just don’t believe he has any chance at all of winning the nomination. He comes at this from a position of weakness; his last political campaign resulted in the loss of his Senate seat from Pennsylvania. How does one go from losing a Senate seat to winning the presidency? I don’t think it can be done. He doesn’t project the aura of a winner at this point. That’s a shame, but it’s reality.

I predict I will upset some of you who waded through this analysis. I may be wrong about Romney. I might have all my doubts about Perry erased over time. I may end up voting for someone in the Florida primary that would surprise me today. At this time, I have no favorite candidate, but I do have some I don’t support at all, as you can tell from my comments. I just want to stay open and keep learning about each of them. By the time of the Florida primary, some of them may no longer be in the race. And there’s always the possibility that a former governor of Alaska might decide to enter the fray. Now, wouldn’t that be interesting?


The Media & Evangelical Presidential Candidates

I’ve mentioned double standards so often when it comes to media coverage that I’m afraid we can become numb to the ongoing hypocrisy. Yet I must point to another example today.

Remember how outraged the media was when they discovered that candidate Barack Obama was a member of a church where the pastor, Jeremiah Wright, was an advocate of the terrorist organization Hamas and who infamously declared that America should be damned by God? You don’t recall that outrage? Well, neither do I. It never materialized.

Today, though, we are treated to a dedicated investigation of the religious beliefs of Republican presidential contenders. Take Michele Bachmann, for instance. Just what did she mean when she referenced the Scripture that talks about submission in marriage? Does her husband control her every move? Is she just this robot without a mind of her own who does his evil bidding? And when she says that homosexuality does not comport with Biblical morality, she surely must be a member of some fringe group, right? Well, it is true that she has been part of a fringe group all her life; they’re called Lutherans. They broke away from the Catholic Church back in the sixteenth century. True fanatics.

She sent the media into a tizzy again a few days ago when she joked that the earthquake and the hurricane could be a sign from God that Washington ought to wake up to its irresponsibility. All who heard her knew the comment was tongue-in-cheek. Not so the media.

Rick Perry is another candidate who causes the media’s blood pressure to rise because of his evangelical approach to life. Why, he actually participated in a public prayer rally last month. How unpresidential. How “fundamentalist.” Why, doesn’t he know anything about separation of church and state? Then, when a child, egged on by his mother, asked him a question about evolution, he had the gall to question the validity of some of its claims. He said there were holes in the theory. You could almost hear the collective gasp as the media suffered a mass heart attack. Rick Perry is “anti-science”; he’s a backward, neanderthal [using the proper evolutionary term] knuckle-dragger. How could we ever entrust the government to someone so unenlightened?

From the media’s perspective, people such as Bachmann and Perrry—and you could also add Herman Cain and Rick Santorum—are wackos. Yet where does one find true wackiness when it comes to worship?

Keep watching. This theme will continue. The double standard, sadly, is alive and well.