During the protracted 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign, Hillary Clinton questioned Barack Obama’s qualifications to be commander-in-chief. She blasted him for waiting too long to break with a racially divisive Chicago minister and she boasted that she could do a much better job of coping with the economy and joblessness. Yet, after she reluctantly suspended her campaign and endorsed Obama for president on June 7, a battered and divided party quickly united, and Obama went on to easily defeat Republican John McCain of Arizona in November.
Few thought the Obama and Clinton camps could set aside their differences and come together so quickly after one of the most bruising political contests of modern times. This is instructive as a sorely divided Republican presidential field this week began showing the first signs of détente. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s rivals have done everything they could think of to humiliate and topple him from his front-runner status almost from the start of the campaign more than a year ago.
But as Romney appears to be on the verge of locking up the 2012 presidential nomination with a third straight victory in South Carolina on Saturday, some of his rivals have begun a healing process essential if the GOP has any hope of upending Obama in November.
“This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy of this critical time in American history.”
Former Utah governor and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr., who just recently dismissed Romney as “unelectable” and lacking in any core beliefs, dropped out of the race yesterday and threw his support to Romney. During a news conference in Myrtle Beach, Huntsman said it was time to end the “toxic” divisiveness within his party and that Romney is “the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama.”
“This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy of this critical time in American history,” said Huntsman, flanked by his wife, children and father. Then during last night’s GOP debate in Myrtle Beach, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry slightly modulated their rhetoric after ripping into Romney for lacking true conservative convictions and past “vulture capitalist” business practices, which they blamed for the loss of thousands of jobs.
Fueled by questions from a panel of journalists, the Republicans spent the opening 15 minutes of the two-hour debate broadcast by Fox News mostly squabbling over Romney’s Bain Capital record. Gingrich said he was entitled to go after Romney on his business record after a Romney Super PAC spent $3.5 million on advertising blistering Gingrich in Iowa. “I think it’s very important for us to look at job creations,” he said, noting Massachusetts was 47th in job creation while Romney was governor and that many news reports have cited instances in which Bain’s investment strategy had led to the closing of plants and businesses.
“We need to satisfy the country that whoever we nominate has a record that can stand up to Barack Obama in a very effective way,” Gingrich said. “If you look at the record . . . there was a pattern in some companies, a handful of them, of leaving them with enormous debt and then within a year or two or three, having them go broke. I think that is something he ought to answer.”
Romney replied that “Four of the companies that we invested in . . . ended up today having some 120,000 jobs. Some of the businesses we invested in weren’t successful and lost jobs.” Romney added, “I know people will come after me. I know President Obama is going to come after me after me. But the record is pretty darned good.”
Romney could wrap up the primary contest by the end of the month – leaving him plenty of time to try to pull his party together and mount a strong offensive against Obama.
With polls showing that voters aren’t buying into their negative ads and Republican establishment figures berating Gingrich and Perry for essentially attacking free enterprise, those two have abruptly toned down their rhetoric in the last couple of days.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has steered clear of the Bain controversy while stressing his Christian family values and strong stands against abortion and same sex marriage. After an impressive second place finish behind Romney in Iowa, but a poor showing in New Hampshire where Romney won big, Santorum is attempting to parlay his weekend endorsement by evangelical leaders into a big turnout at the polls on Saturday. Romney, the moderate conservative, has benefited from fractures and fissures within the ranks of conservatives and religious activists – which has made it virtually impossible for any one of his challengers to derail his campaign.
Unless Santorum can somehow slow down the well-financed and well-organized Romney machine this weekend, Romney will wrap up the primary contest by the end of the month – leaving him plenty of time to try to pull his party together and mount a strong offensive against Obama.
All and all, the Republican presidential campaign has been an ugly affair. Romney, who has been angling for the nomination ever since he lost his last bid in 2008, has been the presumed front-runner from the very start. But many conservatives have never been satisfied with him and have looked elsewhere for a standard-bearer.
Romney has been hammered repeatedly for his health care reform policies while governor of Massachusetts that became a model for Obama’s much reviled national health care reform. His opponents say his economic and tax proposals are too conventional and namby-pamby, and that he has flip-flopped on issues, especially in moving from a pro-choice to a pro-life stand.
Gingrich has dismissed Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate” who lacks the values of Reagan conservatives and would be no match for Obama in a series of rough and tumble presidential debates this fall. Huntsman, during an appearance on Meet the Press last November, said that Romney was on “too many sides of the issues of the day” and “lacks a core.”
Attacks of flip-flopping attacks along with questions about Bain Capital are ideal for Democratic ad makers who could simply string together sound bites from Romney and his rivals.
• Romney said he likes firing people who don’t perform well.
• The tongue-lashings delivered by Gingrich, Perry, and Huntsman can produce advertisements more credible than if the words were uttered by Obama or Vice President Joseph Biden.
While Democrats are reportedly giddy over the prospects of taking on Romney and a badly divided GOP this fall, there is still plenty of time for Romney to try to patch things up with his rivals and the more conservative Tea Party factions of his party, especially if the race for all practical purposes ends late this month. For one thing, Romney is running against an incumbent who is disliked intensely by Republican activists and voters.
“This will help him reunite the party, assuming he continues his march to the nomination,” Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst, told The Fiscal Times. “GOP voters may not be crazy about Romney, but in politics, hate is a more powerful emotion than love.”
Moreover, even with the rich trove of ammunition Republicans are handing over to the Democrats, there is no guarantee that the Republican-on-Republican attacks will work well for Obama in the general election. While Hillary Clinton was highly critical of Obama throughout 2008, there was actually very little that could have helped John McCain in the general election. Even McCain’s effort in August 2008 to piggyback on Clinton’s famous TV ad didn’t work well—the ad with the picture of a little girl sleeping and the announcer saying, “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?”
In the end, McCain’s ad strategy of using Democratic voices against Obama proved to be far less effective than Republicans had hoped, and the Arizona Republican went down to defeat in November. Democrats can only hope they can get more mileage out of the Republican attacks on Romney this fall.