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Opportunists could rule in 'nervous' America


Sometime tomorrow, we will know who won the Florida Republican primary — and by how much.

Primaries are voluntary stateheld contests, in which party members can vote for their preferred presidential candidate. In Florida, with third and fourth runners Rick Santorum and Ron Paul standing aside, it is a two-man battle.

A Newt Gingrich Republican candidacy for president is still possible. Six days ago — after Gingrich's unexpected but decisive primary victory over Mitt Romney in small, poor, redneck South Carolina — a credible CNN poll showed them neck to neck in Florida. Latest polls claim Romney has pulled ahead, 42 per cent to 31 per cent.

But it's still an open contest: in a highly volatile and emotive climate, no one really knows who will cast votes, or where the floating pro-Santorum and pro-Paul votes might go.

Populous, politically and ethnically diverse Florida really matters in the Republican primary process. Florida is a litmus test of the American electorate; and 50 Republican primary votes. If Romney wins in Florida but not by much, Gingrich will stay in the race, and Santorum and Paul will face important choices running up to Super Tuesday, 6 March, when 24 states hold simultaneous primaries.

If Gingrich pulls off an against-the-current-odds win in Florida, it is probably the end for Romney.

The real danger of a Gingrich candidacy has thrown both 'old' (East Coast moderates) and 'new' (Midwestern and Western new money, post-Bush) conservatives into action. The Republican party machine now sees that Gingrich could be their party's presidential candidate. A welter of conservative criticism has thus descended on him.

Gingrich is an authentic wild card populist politician: clever, experienced, quick-thinking, charismatic but erratic. Some former colleagues warn that he cannot be trusted to lead the party or the country. A few days ago, an anonymous admirer who has negotiated with him in Congress commented: 'Newt's absolutely brilliant ... He has 100 ideas; 97 are real good, the other three will blow up the world.'

A top deputy to Gingrich during the Republican revolution of the mid-1990s, Tom DeLay said:

'What has been said about Newt is pretty much true. He had to step down because ... conservative Republicans wouldn't vote for him again as speaker ... because he's not really a conservative ... he'll tell you what you want to hear. He has an uncanny ability ... to feel your pain and know his audience and speak to his audience and fire them up. But when he was speaker, he was erratic, undisciplined.'

By contrast, Romney is Machine Man Republican: safe, rich, dour, cautious — and utterly uninspiring. I doubt he could ever beat Obama under any circumstances.

Just conceivably if the economy tanks or in response to some destabilising foreign policy crisis, Gingrich could beat Obama. He is a mercurial, quick-on-his-feet public debater. As a sample of his political potency, watch how brilliantly he handled the marital infidelity minetrap laid for him in the final South Carolina candidate debate — and the wild audience support for him.

If Gingrich were to get Republican money and right-wing media power behind him — as he would, if he became their primaries-elected chosen candidate — he could be a formidable opponent.

I see the United States as it now is, not as it was 20 years ago. This is a nervous nation in military decline and socio-economic crisis, whose mass politics are febrile and unpredictable. The old small town verities and values can no longer be taken for granted in this apprehensive, entertainment-distracted, celebrity-drugged culture.

Huge numbers of ordinary people who a few years ago thought they were safely lodged in the middle class now realise to their horror that they are a deeply vulnerable white-collar proletariat who must live with economic anxiety every day, as a rich three per cent and its retainers enjoy dividend wealth from exporting American jobs offshore.

These stresses are bearing heavily on America's formerly sound collective judgement. Such circumstances breed political extremism. Fortunately, the Republican contest has not thrown up such a candidate. Both Gingrich and Romney are career-driven opportunists without much baggage in the way of principle or ideology.

Romney and Gingrich will now be hard at work courting support from the significant Santorum and Paul constituencies.

Former 'Tea Party' frontrunners Sarah Palin and Herman Cain now back Gingrich. Populist 'anti-elites' sentiment could start to flow his way. In a recent comment on Facebook, Palin wrote 'Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater would be ashamed of us [Republicans] in this primary ... What we saw with this ridiculous opposition dump on Newt was nothing short of Stalinesque rewriting of history.'

Cain praised Gingrich as 'a patriot ... who is not afraid of bold ideas ... and who is going through the sausage machine now'.

Romney is in many ways a throwback to the traditional kind of centrist presidential candidate, back in the days when the two parties were ideologically almost indistinguishable. But now, ideology is back.

If Gingrich wins the Republican nomination, the election will be a contest of two flavours of populism: 'socialist' and 'nationalist'. Both Obama (genuinely) and Gingrich (opportunistically) now stand against the power of big money and big right-wing media. Romney represents those forces. If he wins, the election will be a straightforward ideologically defined battle, which Obama should win.

But if Gingrich wins the candidacy, those forces will be with him. The election itself is an unequal contest in which voting geography (the electoral college system) and the advertising power of big money and big media favour the Republican candidate, whoever he is.

What a fascinating — and important for the world — drama this Republican primary contest has become. 

Tony KevinTony Kevin is an author and former ambassador to Cambodia and Poland.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, florida primary



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Existing comments

Sad to admit it, but Tony nailed it. All I can add is that the idea of Newt as anti-elite is hilarious. He's a millionaire many times over, he spent his entire career in the belly of the beast (which he once tried to shut down in a fit of pique), is a brilliant liar on the epic scale of William Jefferson Clinton, divorced one wife when she was hospitalized with cancer, committed adultery for years (including the very months when he led the impeachment attack on Clinton for the same vice), and is a man of immense intellect and erudition and zero honesty and grace, as far as I can tell. Romney indeed is white bread, and he would tell you the sun rose in the west if he thought it would earn him a vote, but he appears to be sane, at least. Total respect for Australian politicos, but we have the best capering public mountebanks.

Brian Doyle | 31 January 2012  

I always appreciate the perspective that Australian media affords me as an American citizen. Sources ranging from Eureka Street to 7:30 and Lateline cover more stories from more countries, and do it better, than nearly anywhere I can find in the States. Having said that, Mr. Kevin, your depiction of the US today as an "apprehensive, entertainment-distracted, celebrity-drugged culture" lacks both depth and accuracy. I think you can do better than that.

Jim | 31 January 2012  

A brilliant analysis Tony, but are you claiming that US is in similar situation to Germany in 1933?

Chris | 31 January 2012  

The American ‘preselection’ contest (as we would call it) to become the Republican presidential candidate has lessons for Australia. Foremost is the danger of big money being a major influence and millions of dollars are being spent by both Gringrich and Romney in the pre-selection contest. The U.S.A. has, in the past, been a positive influence on the form of our own political system but the growing power of wealth to determine political outcomes in America should be recognized as undemocratic, dangerous – and must be shunned in Australia. As for the two main candidates competing to become the Republican representative: Professor Robert Reich of the University of California asserts that Mitt Romney would make a ‘terrible president’, but Newt Gingrich would be ‘an unmitigated disaster for America and the world’.

Bob Corcoran | 31 January 2012  

Try newsmax.com or Bob Livingstone (google for address) and you will find opportunism rampant coupled with vitriol ...the fear that the hubris of the super wealthy might have no substance????

hilary | 31 January 2012  

Gringrich " a man of immense intellect and erudition " he is not !. The Jeffersons and Lincolns yes , today's lot possess a rat cunning that is measured by money, not by intelligence, erudition and ethics. The same 'intellect and erudition', totally lacking in morality is worshipped where capital dominates. That includes our lot.

Reg Wilding | 31 January 2012  

Tony Kevin writes, “Both Obama (genuinely) and Gingrich (opportunisticly) now stand against the power of big money and big right-wing media. Romney represents those forces.” Really?

He seems to have forgotten that Obama raised more money from Wall Street than did McCain for the 2008 election, and subsequently there were numerous quid pro quos in handouts of public monies to powerful institutions which both ordinary citizens, genuine socialists and Tea Partiers found abhorrent; the billionaire George Soros whose money-making initiatives almost bankrupted British pension funds (but netted him a billion pounds) supports Obama and most Left wing causes; and the billionaire Warren Buffet supports Obama who in turn pushes the “Buffet Rule” which aims at ensuring high-income earners pay higher tax, although Buffet’s Berkshire group arranges its tax affairs so that it pays no dividends and so has nothing to lose. As for the media, surveys of journalists show that over 80% of reporters for the biggest media outlets voted for Clinton, Al Gore and Obama, and favourably push their agendas .

Myths are wonderful devices for flattering one’s self and ones cause. How deflating to find you might actually be on the side of the spivs and oppressors!

Ross Howard | 31 January 2012  

We know now that Romney won quite comfortably in Florida, but Gingrich has vowed to fight on. It looks as if Romney will cruise to the Republican nomination, though nothing is certain in politics. Both Romney and Gingrich will be wooing Santorum. Romney has the much larger dowry, as the huge 5 to 1 imbalance in spending in Florida proved. So we could see a Mormon Presidential candidate with a Catholic running mate. Still, it is fascinating to speculate what might happen if Gingrich and Santorum were eventually to join forces - but they are admittedly an unlikely couple.

On the wider question of whether the US is in decline, I am not anti-American.I respect and feel considerable affection for the USA - where I have family history and connections. I admire American culture and political-social conversation at its best - the highlight of my fortnight is when the NY Review of Books arrives in the post, and I live for the NY Met Live Opera movies - but I don't look at the USA through rose-tinted glasses. Morag Fraser has just written a fine letter from Princeton in 'Australian Book Review' which offers interesting companion reading to my piece in ES.

tony kevin | 01 February 2012  

Both Gingrich and Romney fill me with dread at the thought of either becoming President of the United States. Thanks for a great analysis that gives me the hope that we may be spared either of these chameleons strutting on the world stage , full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.But doing great harm while they are at it.

Lyn B | 05 February 2012  

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