I was called into the BBC again tonight, for the second time this weekend, to discuss the outcome from the South Carolina Primary. I was delighted to be working with the wonderful Martine Croxall again, and if my performance is any good, I’m going to give her the credit, because she is a blast to work with.
South Carolina saw the first shots fired in the American Civil War and whilst the latest Republican Presidential Debate wasn’t held at the famed Fort Sumter, it may as well have been for the clear divisions that it threw up within the Republican Party between a moderate and a team of rebels all seeking to lay claim to the proud conservative heritage of Ronald Reagan.
The hours heading into the debate were particularly tumultuous. A mere twelve hours beforehand former governor Mitt Romney had been cruising; the declared victor in Iowa and New Hampshire (an historical first for a non-incumbent presidential Republican candidate) and was expected to win Saturday’s South Carolina Primary and in the process finally see off any serious competition for the nomination. Sure, the primaries and caucuses would drag on until June, but realistically, a Romney victory this weekend would effectively seal the deal.
And then a series of interesting and unrelated incidents occurred…
For weeks many of us have been stating the blindingly obvious; namely that Romney has failed to gain the support of up to 70% of voters in the last two elections and that the polling in South Carolina had him similarly placed. However, with a field of other candidates remaining in the race, the Romney opposition was divided. This field thinned slightly earlier in the week with Ambassador John Huntsman’s decision to get out and back Romney. However, on Thursday afternoon, Texan governor Rick Perry followed suit, choosing instead to endorse Newt Gingrich. Suddenly, Gingrich surged.
At the same time, word leaked of a pre-recorded interview that Newt Gingrich’s second wife had conducted for ABC News in which she referred to the Speaker’s request for an open marriage that would allow him to see his then mistress and now latest wife.
Compounding this was the breaking news from Iowa, where it seems that eighteenth century voting methods no longer suffice (strangely enough). Having declared Mitt Romney the winner by a paltry 8 votes in the immediate aftermath of the caucuses, the final (?) tally was revealed to put Rick Santorum ahead by some 34 votes, raising the memory of Florida 2000.
The upshot of all this? Romney, the former man to beat, was now stripped of his win in Iowa and sinking in the polls to a resurgent Newt Gingrich, whose own reputation was being torn to shreds by a vengeful wife, whilst his latest spouse stood by his side. As the debate approached, its potential importance mounted and one wondered what would happen next?
The debates got off to an explosive start. The big question was always going to be as to when the issue of marital fidelity would be raised, and the answer was, immediately. Straight out of he box moderator John King of CNN asked Gingrich if he would like to address the allegations. “No, but I will” he responded and took the opportunity to attack John King and CNN for having the nerve to ask him such a question. It really was all about Newt for much of the debate from then on.
Interestingly, the expected fireworks between Newt and Romney failed to develop, instead Rick Santorum, after a VERY shaky start, attempted to take the opportunity to seal the deal with conservative voters and attacked Gingrich whenever possible, going after his record as Speaker in particular, suggesting that ‘grandiosity has never been a problem’ for Gingrich. At times he spoke through clenched teeth and appeared desperate to remember his script and adhere to his message. Fundamentally, Santorum did himself no favours when he acknowledged that being in he last four was an achievement, a statement that spoke to the heart of his dilemma: He’s not a winner. He also had a complete inability to look his opponents in the eye when attacking them, making him look weak, feeble and cowardly. He must surely be the next candidate to drop out and leave the floor for a straight square-off between Romney and Gingrich.
The bias against Ron Paul in terms of coverage continued unabated, which the candidate noted at one point. When he could get a word in edgeways Paul remained as committed as ever to delivering his thoughts and perspectives in his own unique manner, something he admitted could do with some fine-tuning.
With all of the focus, it really was Gingrich’s night and he didn’t disappoint. More a showman than a politician, one expected to start seeing rabbits come from up his sleeves as he pulled one set of figures and historical facts out after another, referencing his books and time in office and work with the mighty Ronald Reagan. It was clear that Gingrich had a full mastery of the issues and a calm presentation style that would be a benefit in a general election. His weakness of course, is self-embellishment, something Romney highlighted in reference to his virtual exclusion from the Reagan diaries. He also failed to convince in terms of immigration when he suggested establishing citizen’s panels to screen illegal immigrants to decide who could stay and who should be expelled.
The big loser was Mitt Romney who appeared smug and glib and time and again was forced to pivot to prepared answers in response to tough questions. On more than one occasion he appeared to indicate his fatigue, not physically, but with the annoying matter of having to go through the motions of these tiresome debates with candidates he believes he should defeat without trying. The debate was balanced and smart at times, and certainly did not descend into the sort of name-calling and adherence to talking points that occur so often in US politics. It was well moderated and well conducted, reflecting well on all concerned. Surprisingly, perhaps, there was no single knock out punch landed. If anything, there appeared to be more animosity between Gingrich and King than between the candidates, following the heated opening exchange. It is almost certainly the opening exchange for which the debate will be remembered, which is a shame as the Speaker’s private life really had very little impact beyond this.
What was missing? Only little things like foreign policy, Iran, national security, financial policy…
Did the debate tell us anything? It confirmed Ron Paul’s tenacity and determination to adhere to his core beliefs and Libertarian sentiments; Santorum had a faltering start, took the fight to Gingrich but appeared to falter under the gaze of Mitt Romney; Gingrich appeared large, but smart and a master of the issues and gave a very focused closing statement; Romney came across as smug and lacking in the depth required for the job he is once again seeking and singularly failed to ask for the voters to turn out and support him on Saturday. You know what they say, if you don’t ask, you don’t get…. Saturday will be fascinating.
I am delighted to report that The Commentator has just published my latest piece of work that dissects Rick Perry’s decision to withdraw from the Republican race ahead of the South Carolina Primary.
So in the aftermath of the New Hampshire Primary, a candidate has finally realised that they are NOT going to be President of the United States and appears set to throw in the towel. Who is this wise sage you may ask? Newt Gingrich? Rick Santorum? Ron Paul? (The list could go on and on and on…)
No, the answer is John Huntsman, someone who has struggled to gain traction, votes, or even name recognition in some regions and who is all set to withdraw and endorse his fellow Mormon, Mitt Romney.
Huntsman had been championed in some quarters as a serious candidate this year, but things went wrong from the start. His great unveiling ceremony, designed to replicate a similar address by Ronald Reagan so many decades ago, was ruined by unsightly boats in the background that blocked the view of the Statue of Liberty. Republicans remained suspicious of a candidate who until recently had worked for the enemy, sorry, the President of the United States, as ambassador to China (and who could therefore also speak a foreign language, admittedly, not French, something else that was a clear negative). Finally, he was a Mormon, which Mitt Romney has discovered, is hardly something to engender ‘raptures’ amongst the Christian Evangelicals that Republicans will need to woo in vast numbers if they are to reclaim the White House this year.
Huntsman had elected not to campaign in the Iowa Caucuses, remarking that ‘they pick corm in Iowa and presidents in New Hampshire.’ Alas his extensive efforts to woo the voters of the Granite state came to nothing, as he polled just 16.9% and came in third behind Romney and Paul. Seriously, whoever advised his campaign that betting huge in Romney’s neighbouring state was the way to win the nomination should never work in politics again. Indeed, this campaign season has been beset by terrible political decisions; Sarah Palin’s dithering; Romney’s shoe shine antics and various utterances regarding firing people; Rick Perry’s ENTIRE campaign and Huntsman’s all or nothing focus on New Hampshire. Considering that Perry has made a similar effort to focus on South Carolina (where he is currently polling just 6%), his continued viability must surely come into question.
Huntsman’s expected departure will doubtless be the first of several such decisions, as candidates look at the vast costs involved in running primary campaigns in both South Carolina and Florida, the latter of which in particular requires huge advertising budgets just to stay in the game. As the inevitable begins to set in, expect to see similar announcements between now and the end of the month. Such a move will help to solidify the conservative opposition to Romney, as this vote will no longer be splintered between the various candidates who are NOT Mitt Romney. This development has, however, come a little late in the game to be truly effective although it may allow Newt Gingrich to remain in the race, if he is able to muster their support.
Ron Paul is likely to be unaffected by this decision since his core supporters appear utterly unimpressed by the Republican mainstream candidates and would, in all honesty, be advised to form a third party Libertarian movement. They won’t for many reasons. Not least of which is that to do so would simply split the vote on the right and hand the election to the Democrats. Their best bet is to wage a Pat Buchanan-esque rearguard action and to ensure a prime time speaking slot at the convention and a say in defining the platform for the fall. Of course, in 1992 Pat Buchanan ensured that his voice was heard loud and clear and it was his remarks, rather than the candidate’s (a chap named Bush) that resonated in the ears and minds of American voters that fall…. as they queued to elect Bill Clinton. Such is life!
If there is one simple rule that all Democrats need to abide by in an election year it is this: Thou shalt not appear weak on national security. It was a shock therefore, when President Obama announced cuts of $487 billion over ten years to the US defence budget, just eleven months before polling day.
Now, Obama doesn’t need to seek re-nomination and he can stand back and smile as the Republican go through the motions of 50 primaries to eventually select the one guy who has been the front-runner all along. However, it seems very strange for a Democrat to cut defence expenditure in election year and thereby open himself up to the easy accusation of being soft on defence and anti-military, especially when he has never served in any capacity.
The president has made references to fiscal prudence to cut federal expenditure and the national debt, currently running at eye watering levels. But this money will not be saved or used to pay of the debt; instead it will almost certainly be redistributed and spent on domestic programmes. The cuts announced so far amount to a 10-15% cut in the Army and Marine Corps personnel, on the basis that people and their families are expensive. Rather than investing in manpower, 80,000 troops will be cut over ten years, along with what is being referred to as ‘outdated air systems.’ The growth area will be in non-manned technology. That’s drones for the uninitiated.
There are international implications for all of this, since the UK is awaiting delivery of US fighter jets to launch from our as yet un-built aircraft carrier(s). If these get axed as part of the cuts, then the already laughable series of events surrounding the deployment of the UK’s carrier will only continue, as it will be an aircraft carrier with no aircraft to deploy, making it rather more difficult for Britannia to lay any claim to rule the waves.
It is vital to place these cuts in context. The US is not packing up its many tents and withdrawing to a fortress America. This is not Ron Paul’s wildest dream come true, after all. In ten years, after these cuts, the US defence budget will still be larger than that inherited by President Obama and will still be larger than the next ten largest defence spending nations combined. Thankfully (!?) the budget will increase with inflation. So that’s ok!
What is likely to be particularly contentious is the new focus of US foreign policy. Since he arrived in the White House, there has been speculation that Obama was seeking to focus on Asia and the Pacific. In the past three years we have seen his efforts to do so bear little fruit, with what appeared to be a decision to recognise the inevitable and to continue the Special Relationships America enjoys in Europe. However, this announcement makes it clear that the United States intends to refocus its efforts on the Pacific and on the challenges it faces in that region.
It is easy to forget here in Europe that the US is a Pacific power not just an Atlantic power and that it is equally clear that current threat predictions stem from the east, not the west. But this heavy-handed declaration of intent is tantamount to sabre rattling. One wonders when American leaders will wake up to the way in which they un-necessarily provoke negative reactions in other nations and their respective leaders?
There is no doubt that after a decade’s worth of increased defence expenditure caused by the attacks of September 11 a reversion to peacetime expenditure was inevitable and logical, but the timing of this announcement raises a serious question as to whether this is driven by defence needs or budgetary necessity? Also, announcing cuts whilst throwing down the gauntlet to Iran and China and presumably North Korea appears to be contradictory, and risks inflaming the situation. Targeting the Asia-Pacific region and cyber warfare is a red flag in Beijing and a direct challenge to the developing Chinese navy and their anti-ship weaponry.
The cuts also end the Pentagon’s much vaunted ‘two war concept,’ which was being employed in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the switch to the Pacific and away from Europe, we had better hope that this is the right decision and that no historic powers decide to rearm in the face of growing austerity at home. The decision to reduce manpower is also intriguing considering the clearly stated focus on the emerging threat from China. Figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies reveal that in 2010 Chinese had 2,285,00 active service personnel, 800,000 reservists and 1,500,000 paramilitary, making a total Chinese military capacity of 4,585,000. The same figures for the United States reveal 1,468,363 active servicemen, 1,458,500 reservists and 11,035 paramilitary, making a total of 2,937,899. Go do the math. The US better hope that when it comes time for a conflict in the Pacific, its much vaunted unmanned aerial technology is able to prevent China from deploying its army of over 4 and a half million.
Of course, history reveals that such cuts will be reversed if hostilities were to break out, with a massive ramp up in defence expenditure. The risk is that this would be a reflexive action that could be too little too late. The president announced the cuts in the press briefing room at the Pentagon, the first time that this has happened, whilst surrounded by his top brass. Obama is clearly determined to put his stamp in the announcement and demonstrate the support he has in the chain of command. Only time will tell if those who are saluting him today will be voting for Mitt Romney in November.
So, 2 states down, 48 to go. That will no doubt be a disappointment to James Fenton of the Evening Standard, whose recent article of January 6 (“While Republicans flounder, the mood is turning ugly”) called for Republicans to unite ‘sooner rather than later…to call the fight off before the party hurts itself.’ What a misguided sentiment, calling apparently for a coronation rather than a competition. Thankfully the founders of the United States preferred democracy to Fenton’s suggested model and that is exactly what is going to play out across all 50 states in the coming months.
Last night’s New Hampshire Primary saw the unsurprising victory of local candidate Mitt Romney, winning with 39% of the vote, 1 % short of the magic number required before Sir Christopher Meyer promised to eat one of famous red socks. Romney’s ability to win in New Hampshire was never really in doubt; what was going to be telling was the gap between first and second and who it was that would win silver in New Hampshire. After Iowa, there was speculation that Rick Santorum would continue to surprise. Not so much. With just 9% of the vote, the former senator from Pennsylvania must be disappointed that the momentum he so required has thus far failed to materialise in a development that could prove fatal as the race heads south to the Carolinas and to Florida.
Santorum is, however, far from being the biggest loser of the night, although that honour is perhaps shared. John Huntsman bet the farm on winning New Hampshire and didn’t, coming in a distant third with 17%. Likewise Newt Gingrich needed to impress and didn’t, also taking just 9%. One wonders how Gingrich’s renowned ego will handle the fact that 91% of Republicans voted for someone else? How he must lament not running in 1996.
It was no great surprise that Rick Perry failed to improve on his shockingly low Iowa result of just 1%, which remained constant. Of course it could have been worse, his vote could have collapsed altogether. Perry is gambling on a huge showing in South Carolina, where, if truth be told, his campaign was always going to begin, but surely, even in their worst nightmares, his campaign staff can’t have imagined gaining just 1% in the opening two elections?
And finally, before I am accused of ignoring him altogether, we come to Ron Paul; Third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire. That is quite an achievement and as usual it is being quite overlooked. Why is this? I think frankly that the media recognises that he cannot possibly win. Paul is that classic character that appears in the American political arena every now and then; someone who is more interested in speaking his mind than in necessarily winning an election. As was said of Barry Goldwater, he is more interested in being right than in being president. Now, before anyone jumps up and down, I’m not comparing the politics of the two men, merely their refreshing capacity to declare boldly their opinions and to stand by them, something that is all too rare in political life.
Clearly Ron Paul’s message is striking a cord with a solid core of Republican voters and the Party should take heed. It is my view that they will ignore it in the hope that it will go away, or come home to the roost when it realises that the alternative is guaranteeing four more years of Barack Obama in the White House. This is a dangerous gambit that risks either an independent run by Ron Paul (which he has discounted, but never say never in politics) or the disillusionment of 20% of Republican voters who could simply stay at home in November. A Republican victory against the incumbent was going to be a challenge and they cannot simply dismiss a fifth of their potential electorate if they wish to win.
The reaction to Paul is predicated on the basis that if Romney is to face a serious Republican candidate it is not going to be Ron Paul, but rather SOMEONE ELSE. I stress this, because at present it is impossible to determine who, if anyone, this will be. The results from last night indicate a major problem for the Republican Party: 61% of New Hampshire Republican Primary goers voted for someone other than Mitt Romney. If one discounts the Paul vote as one of protest, that still leaves 38% of Republicans backing candidates other than Romney, virtually the same number as support him. What does this demonstrate? Simply that the anti-Romney vote is currently being distributed around too many candidates. It is a sad thing for any candidate to have to consider dropping out after only two votes, but the alternative is to limp on to further ignominy. Democracy is a great concept, but ego threatens to lead to an unintended coronation. Santorum appears to be a spent force; as is Huntsman. Both they and Perry must surpass expectations in South Carolina and Florida if they are to have any chance of halting Romney. If these three fail to do so they should contemplate the painful option of dropping out and endorsing whoever remains, perhaps Newt Gingrich, as an alternative to Romany. To do otherwise is to continue to split the anti-Romney vote and thereby guarantee the nomination of a mediocre candidate who fails to engender excitement among his own party and who will fail to be an adequate challenger for the presidency in November.
Well here we are folks, it’s the first primary in the 2012 presidential election. In many ways, it should all begin here; after all, as John Huntsman reminded us recently, ‘they pick corn in Iowa and presidents in New Hampshire.’ Cute line and only offensive to the 122,000 Republicans that may have voted for him out of 3,400,000 Iowans. Cute and sometimes true. This year things may get interesting. The press are trotting out a nice line to the effect that no Republican has won Iowa and New Hampshire and that at present, Mitt Romney is on course to do just that. Let me stress the last two words; ‘just that.’ Recall his winning margin of 8 votes in Iowa? When LBJ won an election in Texas by a similarly close margin he was tagged ‘Landslide Lyndon’ for the rest of his career (or ‘Lyin’ Lyndon in less polite society). Such is the onus on the front runner, to stay running and to stay at the front.
The problem for Mitt Romney (who appears to have been running for president since, well, forever), is that his fellow Republicans don’t appear to be convinced in any way shape or form by his candidacy. He ‘won’ the Iowa Caucus by 8 votes, and in the process gained the same amount of electors as second place Rick Santorum, who spent far less in the state and who may well have been denied victory by the stone age voting system employed in the state. (Did anyone tell them it’s now the 21st century?)
As a virtual favourite son Romney was 20 points ahead in the New Hampshire polls and a sure thing to win, thereby becoming, as the press have mentioned, the first Republican to win Iowa and New Hampshire. His capacity to win both states is something of a geographical fluke in reality; having thrown money around like it was going out of fashion in Iowa and relying on his local status for victory in New Hampshire. Truth be told, you don’t get many Republicans in Massachusetts.
One of the tricks in an election is to peak on Election Day, as George W. Bush arguable did on Election Day 2004. It really doesn’t matter how popular you are the following day, just as long as more people vote for you on Election Day than anyone else. Romney may well win tonight, indeed, he probably will, but the margin of victory will be telling. Until last week he was 20 points ahead and cruising. Then came Iowa and since then his numbers began to slide and slide and slide. Romney therefore faces the problem of being more popular two weeks prior to the big day than on the day itself, which raises the challenge of what George Herbert Walker Bush called, the Big Mo, or in language adults would use, Momentum.
In coming in 8 votes clear in Iowa and with his numbers cratering in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is singularly failing to develop any momentum to carry him into the far from welcoming southern states of South Carolina and Florida. Perception is everything in politics, and the perception/truth of the matter, is that currently, anywhere between 70-75% of Republican voters are voting for someone else. Out of a weak field of candidates, Mitt Romney is constantly the least bad candidate, a point beautifully captured in the season premier of Saturday Night Live.
In many ways Romney and Obama have a similar situation; both are lucky in terms of their opponents.
If the Republican right could coalesce around an agreed upon candidate (as high ranking members of the party are meeting to arrange) then Romney’s candidacy could be doomed. However, if the 75% of Republicans who won’t vote for Romney continue to split their preference between the likes of Gingrich, Paul, Perry, huntsman and Santorum, then Romney can keep on making gaffes about (“I like firing people”) all day long, before losing in the general election to an even luckier candidate, President Barack Obama.
Today, then, is all about the final number. It would appear impossible for Romney not to win the vote tonight. It is, however, entirely possible, that just like Iowa, he could win the battle of the vote and lose the war of perception
After a series of interminable debate amongst the Republican Party presidential candidates, life was finally breathed into the contest this morning in New Hampshire in the NBC/Facebook debate. Coming less than 24 hours after the previous such event (yes, really) this clash of contestants threatened to be a weary affair with all concerned having debated so soon beforehand. Instead, the opposite occurred with all parties running on adrenaline or coffee to ensure a lively and memorable debate.
One constant through all of the debates has been Mitt Romeny’s capacity to appear serene and above it all. He knows he’s got the nomination in the bag and is determined not to blow it by getting down in the mud with his challenges. He’s content to let them scramble around looking to win cheap debating points, whist he lords it up above them all as the Nominee in Waiting.
This was replicated again, as the other candidates (Gingrich, Paul, Santorum etc) were left to win debating points, which to their credit they did when presented with the opportunity. Governor Perry won the prize for Most Engaging speaker with a good line in self-depreciating humour that won a lot of laughs. Only when the polling is over will we know if the laughs were with him or at him.
Newt Gingrich (Mr Speaker) was happy to remain the Teacher In Chief, filling his answers with facts and history and dropping Ronald Reagan’s name whenever possible, even when it was to defend Trickle Down economics. Ron Paul (Dr Paul) remained as committed as ever to Libertarian principles and the defence of liberty even whilst Rick Santorum mocked his inability to get anything done or to work with anyone. When Santorum was able to get a word in edgeways he appeared to be balanced and rationale, though he did little to overcome his comments on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on Fox News recently.
The biggest loser today may have been Huntsman who did little to distinguish himself. It was always going to be difficult for someone who was an Obama appointee to seek the nomination this year, and Huntsman has repeatedly done nothing to make his job any easier.
What emerged from this debate is that the candidates believe Obama to be a socialist with a secular view of the nation who is weak in the Middle East and a threat to national security. Not mush we don’t already know, but the extent to which these views are being so openly espoused makes for fascinating viewing. What it says about the Republican’s understanding of socialism, however, is another matter.
The latest polling out of New Hampshire does not make for comfortable reading for Romney who has now dropped steadily to 35%, down from the low forties whilst Paul and Hunstman are gaining ground, though remain far behind on 20% and 11% respectively. Texan governor Rick Perry, who many expected to thrown in the towel last week after his poor showing in the Iowa caucuses remains on 1%. His only hope remains what it always was, a string showing in the South Carolina Primary on January 31. Without it, he will be forced to withdraw, though he will doubtless not be alone in that prospect by the end of the month. Romney may have done enough to secure a points victory today, but once more, the true victor was probably Barack Obama.
On January 6 I joined Nick Adams and Alexander Nekrassov in an on-air debate with James Reinl on the Voice of Russia, addressing the US Military Cuts, and whether this constitutes the decline of the United States.
With all of the comings and goings with regard to the Iowa Caucuses I have been rather busy. First Sky News, then ITalk FM, then copious amounts of tweeting and now two more appointments: I will be talking with Lisa Grant this evening on Talk Radio Europe, addressing the fallout from the Iowa result and the implications for the GOP race. Listen live from 19:15 GMT this evening at: http://www.talkradioeurope.com/
Tomorrow I will be a guest on the Voice of Russia, discussing the defence cuts that President Obama is announcing today and their implications for the United States military capability. The show is recording tomorrow, and I will post once I know an air time.
I am also working on a paper addressing the use of warfare to gain and secure elected office, which I anticipate getting to print later in the year.
I hope that you have all had a great Christmas break and that you all have a wonderful 2012.