By Ernest Corea
The Republican Party will anoint its candidate for the 2012 US presidential election with the oil of confidence and crown him with anticipation at its party convention scheduled for August 27-30 in Tampa, Florida.
On April 24, however, four months ahead of the formal coronation, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney justifiably claimed the nomination for himself, following a five-state sweep of victories that day. By clinching the nomination in April, Romney validated this writer’s assessment of February 1 that Romney would “emerge, perhaps as early as in April, as the (Republican) party’s candidate for the US presidency.”
On April 24, Republican primaries were held in the states of Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Romney smashed his way to victory, securing over 50 percent of the votes cast in each state. As a result, his tally of delegates rose to over half the 1,144 delegates required for nomination.
The web site Real Clear Politics, an usually reliable source of electoral statistics, records the current count of delegates as Romney – 838, ex-Senator Rick Santorum – 267, former Speaker Newt Gingrich – 141, and Congressman Ron Paul – 88. The count of delegates varied slightly in other calculations, such as those of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. All of them, however, have Romney at over the half-way mark. It is no longer possible for any other aspirant to the Republican nomination to move ahead of him.
Low Bar for Entry
The Republican primaries season has been a crazy whirl of uncertainties; something like a cross between an episode of The Three Stooges and a “B” grade Hollywooden drama.
One of the contestants, Jon Huntsman, the former Governor of Utah and more recently President Obama’s “man in Beijing,” has been quoted as saying that when he approached the stage for a debate among the candidates he thought to himself that the bar had not been set high for entry into the contest.
A Middle East observer, commenting fairly early on the Republican primaries, asked with exasperated surprise whether the US, with a population of over 300 million, could produce only the current lot of contenders for the Republican nomination.
To recap, briefly: Tim Pawlenty, the former Governor of Minnesota, touted by many as the likely Republican choice, cut and ran as soon as he saw potential defeat ahead. His candidature was too like milquetoast, it was then said. Pizza executive Herman Cain hit the high spots, only to be felled by scandal. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann pressed on without a care about the derision she earned for her many bloopers until her numbers began dropping towards oblivion.
Governor Rick Perry of Texas pulled out after proving beyond all reasonable doubt that he was by no means ready for presidential level politics. Huntsman’s campaign had about as much traction as an electric-powered trolley stuck in a power failure. So, out. Santorum, who brought a fire and brimstone preacher’s dangerous certitude into the contest, bowed to the inevitable.
Then there was one bluebottle hanging on the wall. Oops, sorry, there was just Gingrich. Whether he remains in the race or not is now irrelevant but he is expected to pull out “any time now.” Perhaps he will explain when he does, why he stayed on for so long.
Aluminium as Policy
With the nomination sewed up, Romney is free to begin his Etch A Sketch transformations – as circumstances and the polls require. What in the world are Etch A Sketch transformations, you ask?
An Etch a Sketch toy is a framed box with a transparent cover, with two knobs on the outside and aluminium particles inside. By twiddling the knobs, the toy’s user can change the particles inside to form any shape that is his or her choice of the moment, erase it, and begin all over again, creating new shapes that are more to his liking. This process can go on ceaselessly.
In March, one of Romney’s senior advisers was asked on a CNN television program whether Romney had not been pushed into taking extreme positions during the primary season. These might not sit well with Independent voters in November. Romney’s adviser was quoted as having replied: “Well, I think you hit a re-set button for the Fall campaign. It’s like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.
Many candidates take extreme positions during the primaries, reaching out to the fringes on their base for support, then move towards centrist positions after their nomination has been assured. Rarely, however, has the process been described with such nonchalance, and without even a pretence of fealty to a heartland of fundamentals.
The explanation caused considerable scorn among Romney’s fellow contenders who took to carrying an Etch A Sketch around, and exhibiting it to audiences, big and small. The prospect of candidate Romney switching rapidly from one political design or position to another in carefully calculated moves, gave added momentum to the familiar criticism that he has no core beliefs.
No matter. The time had come to move away from the primaries, so Romney made his “I am the candidate” speech not in any one of the five states where he had performed so well but in New Hampshire, which he counts as one of his home states and where he began his campaign for the presidency. New Hampshire is also a state in which Obama leads him in statewide polls.
Voters were Fooled
In what could turn out to be the first of many acceptance speeches, Romney was confident, clear, and aggressive. Obama, he charged, had dazzled voters with his oratory and thereby bamboozled them into supporting him. In office, he had failed.
As a result of his failure, Romney said, Obama “will run a campaign of diversions and distraction and distortions. That kind of campaign might have worked at another place and in a different time – but not here and not now.”
The preceding years, Romney claimed, “have been the best that Barack Obama can do, but it’s not the best America can do.” Reaching out well into the past for the pithy “It’s the economy, stupid” that the Clinton campaign produced, Romney’s wordsmiths came up with a tortuous counterpoint: “It’s still about the economy, and we’re not stupid.”
A quick twiddling of metaphorical Etch A Sketch knobs, and Romney broke with some of the “hard liners” in his party to agree with Obama that the existing rate for student loans should be held at 3.4 percent and should not be allowed to double as they would if the current rate was not extended.
Now, with more transformations likely, Romney’s concept of good economics, his own interpretation of what caused the recession and his assessment or description of the course it has been taking will combine to form the centerpiece of his election campaign.
As the campaign continues – with Obama set to launch his effort on May 5 – voters will find that Romney brings many positives to the contest. He has a good podium presence and handles himself with dignity, most of the time, although his innate inability to connect with the audience has been noted by both supporters and critics.
With graduate degrees in business management and law from Harvard it should not be surprising that Romney comes across as well schooled, with a capacity to absorb the essentials of an issue and either support or oppose it with clarity. He will need this capacity as he seeks to attack Obama’s record on the economy and defend himself against charges that his work as a financier has been hostile to middle class workers.
He is a workmanlike speaker. He had some flashes of near-brilliance as a debater when his campaign hired Bachmann’s former debate coach, who was later removed from the campaign.
He is strengthened by a supportive wife: charming, well versed in the craft of politics, with a particularly effective podium presence – more effective than his, by most assessments. He has in addition recruited a campaign staff of experienced Republican operatives, at least some of whom are said to have been influenced by the late Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist who was considered a master of guile and wile.
Romney has the advantage, as well, of having access to abundantly wealthy benefactors whose generosity is both direct to the Romney campaign and indirectly or secretively through instruments whose existence and influence on the general election gain from an earlier decision of the Supreme Court. They are free to have unlimited fun with their wealth. That advantage might well turn out to be his biggest asset.
The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.