Here we go again. Rick Santorum’s virtual dead-heat finish with Mitt Romney in Iowa will give rise to a whole new round of speculation that he is the GOP base’s Great Red Hope, following (in order) the yo-yo-like presidential careers of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich. The punditocracy who need to fill up all that dead air time on cable TV will disseminate the new mythology, glibly parsing the votes to come in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
And pretty much all that will be accomplished is to put off the main event we know is on the horizon--one of the most vicious and probably closest presidential contests ever, between Romney and Barack Obama.
So let’s briefly play out the pretense of the coming days. Gingrich, who along with Santorum remains Romney’s only viable competitor, will huff and puff about the negative ads that Romney’s super PAC ran about him in Iowa. (Actually, all those ads did was point out accurately that Gingrich bears the “baggage” of two decades of expediency, hypocrisy, and flip-flopping in Washington.) Then Newt, who is among the most negative politicians in modern memory, will permit his own super PAC to attack the former Massachusetts governor over his less-than-conservative record.
All of which will do little to help Gingrich achieve what is almost certainly already beyond him, the Republican nomination, and will only boost Romney with the independent and centrist voters he needs to win in the general election, as will the inevitable attacks by Santorum.
And let’s get one thing straight about this latest Red Knight anointed by the churlish Republican base. Santorum, whose views on sexual morality are close to medieval and whose neocon foreign policy (e.g., bomb Iran) won’t fly after a decade of disastrous wars—and who, on top of that, was once considered one of America’s dumbest senators by his peers on Capitol Hill—has very, very little chance of getting close to the nomination. He doesn’t have the money, the infrastructure, or the appeal beyond the hard right. The pundits will talk about his history as a blue-state senator, but the fact is that when Pennsylvania voters learned how truly right-wing Santorum was, he lost by 18 points in 2006 (he hasn’t held office for five years)—which, as Molly Ball of The Atlantic points out, “was the biggest loss ever by an incumbent Pennsylvania Republican senator.”
Yes, Romney will come into the general election with a very unenthusiastic base, but let’s not forget that so will Obama. That’s why some liberals, having grown as leery of the morality of Big Government as libertarians, are now openly flirting with support for Ron Paul, even though he is opposed heart and soul to their central belief: using government to promote social equity. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, in a powerful broadside this week, observed that progressives are flirting with Paul for the simple reason that Obama "has done heinous things with the power he has been vested," including waging covert wars with both Islamist extremists and with Iran. Greenwald accused progressives of not conducting an honest debate with themselves in which they admit the real trade-offs of this Democratic administration: We'll accept unchecked executive power in which Muslim children are killed as collateral damage in drone strikes and bankers are secretly bailed out, as long as we can have fewer cuts to entitlements and a more progressive Supreme Court. Said Greenwald: "It is the classic lesser-of-two-evils rationale, the key being that it explicitly recognizes that both sides are 'evil': meaning it is not a Good versus Evil contest but a More Evil versus Less Evil contest."
And this, inevitably, will be what the general election will be about as well. It will be less about conservatism versus liberalism than about least-worstism. Fueled by super PAC money—the one true imponderable of this election—the campaign between Obama and Romney will be savage, but it’s not likely to be a campaign over high principle, or what Romney calls the “soul” of America.
This, too, has been the subject of much myth-making in this political season.
The pundits are, as usual, going overboard about the significance of this election. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne even concluded in recent days that that “the 2012 election will be a turning point involving one of the most momentous choices in American history." Dionne wrote: "For the first time since Barry Goldwater made the effort in 1964, the Republican Party is taking a run at overturning the consensus that has governed U.S. political life since the Progressive era." To wit: Republicans want to remove government from American life, and Obama wants to impose it.
The problem with this analysis is we've been hearing it since the Reagan era, and the reality is nothing like the rhetoric. Reagan launched a deregulatory era but did not cut the size of government; he increased it. So did the two Bushes. The tea party-driven GOP rhetoric we're hearing now is an angry reaction to that, but let's not overreact ourselves.
In truth, Obama and Romney are far closer in mindset and philosophy than anyone is willing to acknowledge just now. Obama, despite his image, has sought to placate business and left Wall Street largely intact, and he is taking a far tougher line on foreign policy--one that reflects a traditional GOP "realpolitik" view and a dramatic ratcheting up of covert war-- than is generally acknowledged, even when it comes to China.
Romney, increasingly desperate to win over his base against the onslaught of "Not-Romneys," has allowed his rhetoric to grow more inflamed on the trail, including commitments to a balanced-budget amendment and partially voucherizing Medicare as well as eliminating Obamacare. But based on his history, if he gets the nomination he is unlikely to follow through fully on these overheated pre-primary pledges and do many things dramatically differently, either on the economy or foreign policy. The problems of slow growth, chronic deficits and an overextended military will inevitably lend themselves to similar solutions from either an Obama or a Romney administration.
So let the general begin already. And let’s not deceive ourselves over what it’s about: power far more than principle.