This is one election season in which the conventional wisdom is no sooner formulated than it is refuted by events: Hillary was "inevitable" now she’s content to hold her ground. Rudolph Giuliani was the "frontrunner" in the national polls today he’s a laughingstock, who earned the distinction of paying the most cash ever for a single delegate. As I put it at the tail end of last year, the theme of election season ’08 is the collapse of the alleged frontrunners.
On the Democratic side, the big story is Barack Obama’s strong challenge to the Clinton machine: coming on strong as the antiwar candidate, with ads that clearly pledged to get us out, Obama’s momentum wasn’t enough to overcome the determined rear guard action and racially divisive defense of the Clintonites, who pulled out all the stops and managed to hold on for dear life.
On the Republican side, the fragmentation of the GOP continued apace, with the party apparently split along regional as well as ideological lines: McCain, while proclaiming himself the "frontrunner," won on both coasts, Romney took the Midwest, and the Huckster conned the South into giving him the nod. One has to note the weakness of Romney, who did well in caucus states, and in those regions where he had a personal connection (Massachusetts and Utah). This represents the fragility of the old GOP establishment, which is backing Romney: like their candidate, they are out of ideas, and out of steam. The big story for the GOP is the persistence of Huckabee, whose surprising strength has knocked Romney flat on his back and pretty much out of the race. What’s significant, however, is that McCain has so far failed to close the deal, and the party convention is shaping up to be little short of chaos.
The same fate awaits the Democrats: it looks like the pledged delegates that is, delegates won fair and square in a primary are going in their majority to Obama, while the "super-delegates" party bigwigs appointed by the Powers-That-Be could give the nomination to Hillary. This could set up a situation where the party Establishment defies the apparent will of the voters and crowns Hillary in a super-delegate "coup." One can almost feel the resentment, disappointment, and building anger that will rise up and smite the Democrats if and when this occurs. The whole process then becomes a metaphor for the cause of widespread voter alienation the rise of a permanently-entrenched political class in America, similar to that which once wielded power in the former Soviet Union.
Obama’s amazing rise is due almost entirely to his position on the war: he wants out by the end of ’08, and so do most Americans no matter which party they belong to. This is why his rhetoric about being a unifier is not all that far-fetched: the major appeal of "change" as a campaign theme, in this context, means first and foremost abandoning our foreign policy of perpetual war. During his speech last night, it was Obama’s lines about ending the war and bringing the troops home that brought the loudest sustained cheer: the crowd went wild.
No, they weren’t applauding the prospect of America’s return to the wisdom of the Founders, who warned against foreign entanglements and dreaded the rise of a powerful military caste: Obama represents nothing quite as coherent as that.. However, he has managed to harness the inchoate rage of a public that was duped into supporting a disastrous war, and channel it into his campaign. The issue the pundits said didn’t matter anymore made the difference for Obama, in large part energizing his late surge and giving him that extra ooomph that separates a near miss from an even split.
If we look at the numbers coming out of Super Tuesday, we can see that the effect of telescoping the primary season into a few short months has had the exact opposite of its presumed intent. Designed by party bosses to ensure their hegemony and the hegemony of cash over the nominating process, the actual result of this enforced condensation has been increased volatility. This boomerang effect has thrown the alleged leaders of both parties into a tailspin, and it is a sight beautiful to behold. For once, the bad guys got their come-uppance! How sweet it is!
The epic battle between Hillary and Obama is a narrative that the media is having a ball with, and who can blame them? It’s like an ongoing soap opera, with all the requisite stars Oprah, the Kennedy family, Stevie Wonder but to political wonks and ideologues (or do I repeat myself?) the really interesting case is that of the GOP.
As the party anticipates the prospect of utter annihilation in November, its future is prefigured in the wake of Super-Tuesday’s results: the GOP is not one, but at least three parties, aptly symbolized by the three major contenders. Romney represents the party establishment or, rather, the conservative establishment, as manifested in the pages of National Review which is now confined to the hinterlands, i.e. the smaller states, and can only win in a caucus situation, where the influence of the GOP apparatus is maximized. (The same is true for the campaign of Ron Paul, where the dedication and enthusiasm of ideologically-motivated volunteers gives the Paulians an influence way out of proportion to their numbers, as in West Virginia.)
On the other hand, McCain represents the old "moderate"-RINO-pragmatist wing, in alliance with the tattered remnants of the hardcore neocon crowd whose electoral strength can be measured by the lone delegate Giuliani managed to win in exchange for the expenditure of his celebrity as well as the $59 million he raised. The neocons i.e. the real War Party who supported McCain over Bush in 2000 are back on board, now that the Giuliani dirigible has had all the hot air let out of it.
War, war, war is all McCain talks about or cares about, and his savaging of Romney over who is more pro-surge and bloodthirsty during the last debate showed why the voters will reject him in the end: he came across as an angry old man, and downright dangerous: I for one thought he was about to grab poor Romney by the throat and throttle him right there in full view of millions. Not a pretty sight, and not a winning act.
You have to give the Huckster credit for sticking to his guns and staying in the race: his campaign, from what I understand, is put together with rubber-bands and chewing gum, but he isn’t throwing spitballs he represents what is left of the old populist spirit that used to reside in at least some sectors of the GOP, and has now migrated southward. Economically ignorant, and basically indifferent to the great foreign policy issues of our time, the Huckster is gaining traction because he’s personally appealing, and, as a Baptist preacher, he has a natural constituency in the GOP. Alone among the big three, he seems like he might even be a real person, rather than a caricature: the authenticity issue is even more of a factor in Romney’s apparent downfall, bigger than the Mormon question.
About Ron Paul, the only consistently antiwar candidate, I’ll have more to say later: I would only note, at this point, that the closed GOP primary system operative in most states hurt him. In any event, the grassroots movement that has grown up around his candidacy is a great achievement, in spite of whatever shortcomings the campaign may have had.
As Peggy Noonan points out with some bitterness, George W. Bush destroyed the GOP and we are looking at the wreckage of the party in the results of Tuesday’s remarkably inconclusive primary. What’s significant is that the neocons have split with the "movement" conservatives, and the bloodletting has only just begun. In the event McCain gets the nomination, the field is open for a third party to come in from the right and cash in on McCain-ophobia.
Think of it: Rush Limbaugh singing the 32 praises of Ron Paul. As the Libertarian-Constitution third party candidate challenging both McCain and Hillary (or Obama, if the improbable happens), Paul would garner support from conservatives who hate McCain as well as from antiwar voters on the left. David Frum thinks a third party movement led by Paul would take more votes from the Democrats than the Republicans, but if McCain is the nominee as looks increasingly likely: but, this year, you never know that scenario seems more like wishful thinking. A third party run by Paul could relegate the GOP to the political graveyard, where it would take its place alongside the Whigs, the Know-Nothings, and the Greenback Party. That alone quite aside from any other benefit to libertarianism and/or the antiwar movement will have made the whole effort worth it.
As Lew Rockwell trenchantly put it, the GOP is the party of what he calls "red-state fascism" an openly authoritarian and militaristic tendency in American politics promoted by neoconservative intellectuals and their political camp followers, which has led the Republican party to its present parlous state. As has been pointed out by Jacob Heilbrunn in his recent excellent book, the neocons came over from the far left and penetrated the American Right in a conscious "entrist" effort, much as a parasite or a virus invades and takes over its host. In the end, if left unchecked, the parasite kills the host, leaving only the hollowed-out husk.
Eight years of permanent war, and endless scare-mongering, has hollowed out the GOP as a national political force, and the parasites are stirring, restlessly looking about for another victim .
"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried."
For the neocons, their winter of discontent may end with the nomination of two essentially pro-war, safely pro-interventionist candidates for the presidency: McCain and the Clintons. In that case, the campaign will consist of more-interventionist-than-thou proclamations, with McCain the probable winner.
For the Bushies, "the clouds that low’r’d upon our house" would be lifted the White House retained, the war resumed and the Mesopotamian project started by Dubya revived.
For the Democratic base, which is solidly antiwar and instinctively anti-interventionist, their hopes will likely be "in the deep bosom of the ocean buried," as the triumph of the Super-delegates crushes underfoot the spirit of democracy that supposedly animates the Democratic party.
For the voters, the winter of their discontent will only deepen, come November adding further volatile possibilities to a year of political tumult.