It is less than a month before the Iowa Caucus, the first major test for Republican candidates aspiring to run for U.S. president in 2012. A win in Iowa will prove their durability for the long year ahead, one filled with more state battles which will select the frontrunner that will face President Barack Obama in the election.
At this time, the real contest seems to be between former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, and former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich. Neither, however, seems to excite the conservative, Evangelical base of the Republican Party completely. The choice is between bad and worse. Charles Krauthammer, the dean of conservative columnists, has already declared it “a weak Republican field with two significantly flawed front-runners.”
Other candidates – much more colourful – have either imploded or proved they shouldn’t have ambitions beyond their state borders. Still others, who initially soared in the polls, have just as quickly fallen from the heights of their own hubris.
Herman Cain, the former pizza king, drowned in a sea of sexual harassment charges, including revelations of a 13-year affair, before finally bowing out last weekend. And he hadn’t a clue what or where Libya was when asked by a newspaper editorial board, the video of which went viral. Rick Perry, governor or Texas, just doesn’t have what it takes to run a country, especially a superpower with global interests, ongoing wars, future skirmishes and a humongous domestic economic hole. He can’t even remember what the voting age for Americans is or the government agencies he says he wants to abolish.
As for the remaining line-up, it’s no better. Michele Bachmann, darling of the Tea Party movement, has shown a steady decline in popularity after an initial burst in the summer, while Ron Paul, the most maverick of candidates, is too Libertarian (he doesn’t want wars, supports medicinal use of marijuana) to have a real chance. Jon Huntsman, a sophisticated former Governor of Utah who served as Obama’s Ambassador to China until last year, is on the margins even though he is impressive on economic and foreign policy issues.
So the fight is shaping to be Mitt vs. Newt although over the course of 2012, when the battle really heats up, anything could happen. One must invoke the cliché that ‘a week is too long in politics’ as an insurance against faulty predictions. There is minor talk of a “write-in” candidate because neither Romney nor Gingrich seem ideal to Republican strategists. One is considered not hard-line enough, the other too tainted from his past and undisciplined with a tendency to explode.
How are the two looking to their Republican voters? Romney has managed to get through the five debates so far wondrously unscathed, with his perfectly groomed hair and even-keeled performances. Gingrich too hasn’t done anything worse than sounding grand and speaking about himself in the third person as a great historical figure he is yet to become. But neither strikes a chord with independent voters and disgruntled Democrats who are expected to turn this election.
Romney is seen as a flip-flopper because he instituted a health-care plan in Massachusetts that is eerily similar to Obama’s, and which he refuses to repudiate. He is therefore dubbed ideologically unreliable – an East Coast right-of-centre conservative who may buckle under the liberals. He is also seen as someone who is efficient but lacking the political touch to appeal to voters in the South and the Midwest. A good manager (he has private sector background), he has been labeled a “conservative of convenience.”
Gingrich, who famously orchestrated the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 from under the nose of Bill Clinton, has too many potential skeletons in his closet, which could begin to dance once the Democrats get going. Married thrice and prone to keeping an account at Tiffany’s, he took $1.6 million from Freddie Mac for serving as a “historian” while declaring that politicians who benefited from the whole mortgage-mania which caused the recession should be put in “jail.” Conservative columnist George Will called it the “artistic vulgarity” of a “hired larynx” for interest groups.
However, being a Washington insider in the past hasn’t really affected Gingrich’s poll ratings among those who live far from the U.S. capital. He is currently either in first or second place to Romney in various polls. Ironically, his experience in the capital appears to have become an asset. Republican supporters, especially older ones, admire his confidence and seem to like the familiarity. He has performed well in debates, coming across as the “smartest” guy in the line-up.
But the Democrats are waiting to get their claws into Gingrich because of his long history and the delicious details of his arrogance. Former house speaker, Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said she will reveal details, when the time is right, about Gingrich’s flirtation with liberal causes.
As they say, the game has only just begun.
While Romney may be a safer bet, Gingrich may rally the troops better. During the last debate, which was on foreign policy issues, the contrast was apparent. After all the candidates were done lambasting Obama for being too soft on Iran, too hard on Israel and simply confused on Pakistan, the differences between the front runners became apparent.
Romney could be described as a more mainstream Republican – he wants to increase defence spending, scare Iran off the nuclear course by sending U.S. ships to the Persian Gulf and cut military aid to Pakistan. He favours civilian aid because it could help “bring Pakistan into the 21st century or the 20th century for that matter.” He wants U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by 2014, a timetable that Obama has already set. He said he worries about the growing power of China.
Gingrich, prone to being edgy, says he may cut defence spending. He calls himself a “cheap hawk” and prefers to do things that are less expensive. Since Iran is the favourite drum to beat on foreign policy issues, Gingrich has a unique prescription to bring Teheran in line: the way to stop Iran’s nuclear programme is by sabotaging its gas refinery while increasing U.S. oil production to lower the price of oil.
Iran would consider sabotage an act of aggression and may retaliate – but one assumes that Gingrich is only playing the election game of who can be harder on Iran. “If we were serious, we could break the Iranian regime, I think, within a year,” he boasted. He has also declared that he would be the nominee, naturally. You get the drift.
Gingrich’s ideas for getting Pakistan’s cooperation in curbing terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan are no less belligerent. “Hot pursuit” of terrorists into Pakistan should be used as an option, he says. “You tell the Pakistanis: Help us or get out of the way, but don’t complain if we kill people you are not willing to go after on your territory,” he said recently.
It would be a good exercise for Republican Party strategists to imagine what Gingrich would do in the current situation where Pakistani leaders are demanding an apology for the NATO air attack on two border posts which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, sending the country into a new spasm of anger. Relations have reached another low – if that were possible – and NATO supply trucks are blocked from entering Afghanistan. Gingrich’s pugnacity may cause a complete rupture.
Fortunately for Obama he is not considered vulnerable on foreign policy issues. He got the world’s most wanted man – Osama bin Laden – in an arguably risky raid inside Pakistan. He joined NATO in the military action against Libya, which ultimately led to the ouster of Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. He is ending the two wars – Iraq (total withdrawal by year-end) and Afghanistan (by 2014) started by his Republican predec
essor, George Bush, which have grown unpopular and too expensive to bear.
On India, the current president and Republican candidates are broadly aligned in support.
Between Romney and Gingrich, it may come down to who has better organisation and a larger treasure chest to survive this never-ending, two-year campaign without making a major mistake. In the end, the U.S. presidential campaign is a survival test.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based Journalist and Analyst.
This article was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can find more exclusive features here.