Business Times - 02 Mar 2012
Saving carmakers could save Obama
It will be difficult for pro-bankruptcy Romney and Santorum to challenge the pro-bailout president in November polls
By LEON HADAR
AFTER their impressive Congressional victories in 2010, including the taking over of the House of Representatives, Republicans seemed to be on a roll and on their way to the White House in 2012.
Against the backdrop of a very slow economic recovery, an all-time high unemployment rate and exploding budget deficits, Democratic President Barack Obama was seen to be vulnerable.
Mr Obama had been losing support among independent voters who had helped him win the presidency in 2008 and whose backing remains crucial to his re-election in November, and it seemed that he could not even count on his Democratic fans among the young and the educated professionals to get out and vote for him on Election Day.
At the same time, the enthusiastic base of the Republican Party, fired up by the Tea Party movement and its anti-government agenda, was ready to rock and get out and vote for whomever the GOP elected as the party's presidential candidate this year.
Everyone expected that candidate to be Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and a financial business executive, who was seen as representing the moderate wing of the party and as such would be able to muster support from those centrist independent voters in November.
But the Republicans refused to fall behind this presumptive presidential nominee. Despite the fact that Mr Romney looked like Hollywood's idea of an American president and had impressive academic credentials and professional experience, the majority of the Republican presidential primary voters were not ready to fall in love with him.
A member of a politically powerful and wealthy family, Mr Romney seemed to be too cold, too aloof, too elitist; a billionaire who was not able to 'connect' with the 'average guy' in an election year dominated by the populist rage against the political and business elites.
Moreover, the members of the Tea Party movement represented the ideologically radical elements on the political right with their social-conservative agenda. Then there are those with the libertarian economic-libertarian approach. And they all regarded Mr Romney - the former governor of a 'blue state' who had helped pass a government-backed health-insurance programme in Massachusetts that had served as the model for the much-derided Obamacare and who not so long ago supported abortion and gay rights - as being too liberal to their taste. And that despite the fact that Mr Romney has gone through a major ideological metamorphosis in recent years and embraced the extreme positions favoured by social-conservative Republicans.
And let's not forget that Mr Romney is a Mormon. Many Christian Evangelists who constitute an important voting bloc in the Republican Party, especially in the South, still regard Mormonism as a 'cult' whose religious values and rituals (including, until the early 20th century, polygamy) are antithetical to those of mainstream Protestantism (which explains why Mr Romney hasn't been doing so well in the South).
So since the start of the presidential primary season, Republican voters have been searching for what has come to be known as the 'anti-Romney' candidate.
While libertarians have all but anointed Representative Ron Paul from Texas as their candidate, social-conservatives have been flirting with the Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, Pizza business executive Herman Cain, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former House speaker Newt Gingrich from Georgia (who had won the primary in South Carolina and could do well in other southern states).
But the latest and most surprising and controversial 'anti-Romney' figure has been former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum - a devoted Roman Catholic whose immigrant grandfather had worked in the coal mines in that state - who after winning the Republican races in Iowa, Missouri and Colorado has emerged as the Republican candidate who had a real chance of beating Mr Romney and getting his party's nomination. Mr Santorum has succeeded in marketing himself to the Republican voters as the 'real thing' - an authentic social-conservative who has always been opposed to legalising abortion and gay marriages and who, unlike the blue-blooded Mr Romney, can relate to the blue-collar workers and other economically distressed Americans, and would have a better chance than Mr Romney in carrying key 'swing' states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, that have a large concentration of working-class voters - who also tend to adhere to more traditional cultural and religious values.
So it was appropriate that the defining electoral battle between Mr Romney and Mr Santorum would take place in Michigan, a state that experienced a devastating economic blow, including rising unemployment during the Great Recession that had hurt its manufacturing sector, including its huge car industry.
And here is where it got really interesting. Mr Romney was raised in Michigan, where his father, George Romney, was the president of American Motors Corporation and the Republican governor of the state. If there was one state that almost everyone expected Mr Romney to win - in addition to Utah, with its majority of Mormon voters - it was Michigan.
But Mr Romney found himself under criticism by Democrats as well as many Republicans for his opposition to Mr Obama's support for bailing out General Motors (GM) and Chrysler through financial support from the federal government. In fact, Mr Romney even published an op-ed in The New York Times in 2009 in which he proposed that Washington allow the two car companies to go bankrupt.
Mr Santorum also opposed the bailout. But he proved more successful than Mr Romney in wining support from blue-collar voters in Michigan, especially after Mr Romney continued to make one gaffe after another that tended to accentuate his 'elitism'; for example, by mentioning that his wife owned two Cadillacs.
Moreover, while Mr Romney has failed to excite the conservative base of his party in Michigan, Mr Santorum proved to be a hit with these same Republicans by stressing not only his rejection of abortion and gay marriage but also his opposition to the use of contraceptives and his scepticism about the principle of separation of state and religion.
Mr Santorum's neo-theocratic views have helped him with the conservative Republicans but are bound to hurt him in the general election, and especially with independent voters who reject his agenda.
While Mr Romney may have avoided an electoral defeat in Michigan on Tuesday, his narrow victory over Mr Santorum points to a long primary battle between them that would go all the way to the party's nomination convention in Florida in June. Mr Paul and Mr Gingrich will probably remain in the race and continue collecting delegates that they could use as bargaining chips during the convention.
Mr Romney also won the primary in Arizona on Tuesday but he has probably lost his status as the party's presumptive presidential nominee.
And that the victor in the Republican primary in Michigan will probably lose the general election in the state in November - in a recent NBC/Marist poll, Mr Obama beats Mr Romney by 18 per cent in Michigan and Mr Santorum by 26 per cent - dramatises the problems facing the Republicans this year. The main reason for Mr Obama's electoral momentum in Michigan was his decision to save GM and Chrysler - while the Republicans campaigned against the bailout.
The result is that the three major American car companies are making money, with the car industry adding around 170,000 new jobs in the last two years. So it is not surprising that a large majority of voters in Michigan support the bailout and give the White House credit for reviving the economy in the state.
Preventing GM and Chrysler from going bankrupt was the kind of policy that Mr Obama would highlight during the campaign - that the government should play an active role in re-energising the American economy - challenging the Republican view that the private sector can do the job by itself, that the government should get out of the way and allow the free-market to do its magic - even if that means allowing companies such as GM and Chrysler to go bankrupt.
Both Mr Santorum and Mr Romney have supported the let-GM-go-bankrupt view, which would make it difficult for them to challenge Mr Obama who in November will be running with the slogan: 'Osama (bin Laden) is dead and GM is alive.'
Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.