Romney faces new mood in his party

Business Times - 18 Jan 2012

Romney faces new mood in his party

Republicans seem to be more attracted to his rivals' economic and foreign policy agenda


THE leading presidential candidates of the political party are blasting Wall Street private equity executives as 'vultures' who are destroying the livelihood of economically distressed blue-collar workers. 'They're just vultures,' one of this party's presidential aspirants declared recently, as he was describing what those greedy venture capitalists do for living. 'They're vultures that are sitting out there on the tree limb waiting for the company to get sick, and then they swoop in, they eat the carcass, they leave with that and they save the skeleton,' he concluded. His remarks would have been applauded even by Comrade Lenin.

And in the presidential primary of the above-mentioned political party, a leading anti-war activist who has been calling for the withdrawal of US troops from the Middle East, East Asia and Europe, and for getting rid of the Central Intelligence Agency - he even challenged the legality of the assassination of Osama bin Laden - ended up winning 23 per cent of the vote.

Does that mean that the Democratic Party is coming under the influence of hardcore Marxists and being taken over by 'anti-American appeasers' and 'secret Muslims'? Is American capitalism being threatened by attacks of European-style socialists and left-wing peaceniks?

Actually, this attack on Wall Street financiers has been led by Republican presidential contenders. Indeed, the attack against those capitalist 'vultures' was made by Comrade Rick Perry, the so-called 'conservative' Republican Governor of Texas, of all states, who has joined two other well-known socialists and presidential candidates - former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum - in taking a shot at their main rival for their party's presidential nomination, former Bain Capital executive and multimillionaire Mitt Romney.

As the Republicans prepare for the next primary vote in South Carolina, a state with a large unemployment rate and where many blue-collar Republican voters have been devastated by the Great Recession, Mr Perry, Mr Gingrich and Mr Santorum have been depicting Mr Romney as a cut-throat capitalist who made his money in restructuring failed companies and in the process laying off thousands of workers. A group allied with Mr Gingrich has produced an anti-Romney television commercial in which some of the laid-off workers blame Bain Capital and Mr Romney for their economic misfortunes.

Mr Romney and his political supporters and financial backers counter that criticism by arguing that capitalism is all about 'creative destruction' under which some old jobs are lost while new ones are created, and at the end of the day the entire economy grows to the benefit of almost everyone. But while this kind of model of free-market capitalism continues to be espoused by well-to-do Americans and business executives who defend Mr Romney, much of the rank and file of the party, that does not reside in the wealthy suburbs, has been very critical of the government bailout of Wall Street, and may have difficulties identifying with, and voting for, the super-rich Mr Romney.

These Republicans seem to be more attracted to the populist and economic nationalist agenda that Mr Perry and Mr Gingrich are advancing. At the same time, many of the young and independent voters Republicans are hoping to win over in November reject the neo-conservative foreign policy that Mr Romney and the Republican Party establishment have embraced.

Indeed, it was the anti-war libertarian and the Congressman from Texas, Ron Paul, who came in second and won 23 per cent of the vote in the recent New Hampshire Republican primary, while former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who has now pulled out of the nomination race, received 17 per cent of the vote by calling for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan.

So if you consider that Mr Huntsman came in third in New Hampshire, winning 17 per cent of the vote, and you combine that number with the 23 per cent that Mr Paul mustered there, it is possible to conclude that 40 per cent of the Republican voters in New Hampshire rejected president George W Bush's global military adventures.

Moreover, the three most radical neocons in the race - Mr Gingrich, Mr Santorum and Mr Perry - who cannot wait to start bombing Iran and in the case of Mr Perry, to re-invade Iraq - got altogether 20 per cent of the vote in New Hampshire. The libertarian Mr Paul had been regarded as 'unelectable' and his critics argue that his anti-interventionist foreign policy positions are 'outside the mainstream' while they continue to take seriously the push for war with Iran by Mr Gingrich and Mr Santorum (not to mention their support for the bizarre anti-syariah campaign in this country).

It is true that it may be too early to predict whether Mr Paul would do as well (and perhaps even better) in the primary in South Carolina and other states in the South and Midwest - where Republicans tend to espouse more nationalist positions - as he did in New Hampshire and Iowa.

And the fact is that Mr Romney - who did win in Iowa and New Hampshire - continues to adhere to foreign policy positions that are very similar to those of Mr Bush and former presidential candidate John McCain. And he is widely expected to win the Republican primary race.

In fact, Mr Romney has surrounded himself with national security advisers who belong to the neo-conservative wing of the Republican Party and the conservative movement and continues to accuse President Barack Obama - under whom Osama was killed, the number of US troops in Afghanistan have increased and an effort to raise the diplomatic status of the Palestinians at the United Nation was averted - of 'appeasement', of gutting the US military and of abandoning Israel.

But Mr Romney, whose main strength has been his ability to adjust his earlier more moderate political views on social-cultural issues - such as abortion or gay rights - to the prevailing ultra-conservative views of the Republican establishment, will now have to deal with another changing political reality: The neoconservative strategy of maintaining American global hegemony has ceased to be the dominant view among ordinary Republican voters.

At the minimum, there is going to be a serious and heated debate among Republicans about the direction of US foreign policy in the coming years. Indeed, many conservatives have concluded that the notion of using the power of the US government to do 'regime change' and 'nation building' around the world runs very much contrary to conservative values that highlight scepticism about the ability of government to promote political and social change - whether it is in Dubuque, Iowa or in Baghdad, Iraq.

If Mr Romney wants to ensure that the supporters of Mr Paul and Mr Huntsman - that include many young voters and the kind of middle-class professionals that constitute the critical bloc of 'independent voters' - vote for him, he would need to respond to their opposition to military adventurism. But it is not clear that Mr Romney would be ready to re-invent himself once again by shedding off his neo-conservative position as well as his free-market fundamentalism. Or that his party's establishment would allow him to do so.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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