Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Tim Pawlenty bows out, and the Republican field

It's a shame to see Tim Pawlenty leave the Republican race for the party's Presidential nomination. Pawlenty started off well in the debate on 11th August, but a bit of a fight between him and nutcase Michelle Bachmann broke out. (Sadly not a physical fight; that would have been exciting, though).

Pawlenty bowing out after coming third in the Ames, Iowa Republican straw poll would seem odd. Third isn't a bad place at all to be in; especially considering that it was out of 10, with former governor of Utah John Huntsman placing in 9th and congressman Thad McCotter bringing up the rear. Personally, I think he was too quick in jumping the ship. He was beaten by Michele Bachmann, who placed first with 28.5% of the vote, and Ron Paul just one percentage point behind her. However, the problem for Pawlenty is that he polled a long way behind, gaining just 13.5% of the votes in the poll, despite being more nationally prominent than many of the other candidates. As Paul Steinhauser points out on CNN, Pawlenty came to the campaign with experience, supporters, funds, and staff, and still couldn't beat two much more obscure candidates. Whilst many polls have been conducted previously and have had little impact on whether candidates rule themselves out, it's necessary to bear in mind the importance that Iowa represents. It's the first primary - or specifically, it's a caucus, but we needn't muddy the waters - and it can play a pivotal role in catapulting candidates to the fore. It's fairly common, though not a steadfast rule, that the winner in Iowa will go on to become the party's nomination for the Presidential election. In 2008, for example, obscure and young Senator Barack Obama won very comfortably, pushing former favourite Hilary Clinton into a bad third place. This state's caucus becomes especially important now that parties are shifting towards minimising the number of primaries which take place early in order to prevent a rush to be near the beginning. Whilst Pawlenty placing third behind two fairly obscure - especially Bachmann - and very niche candidates must have been a great disappointment to him, it seems to me that he was too quick to write off his chances.

Here are the results of the poll which followed the debate:

If we presume that the Iowa straw polls reasonably predict the outcome of the caucus there, looking ahead to the next major event, the New Hampshire primaries, there would not have been much more hope of success for Pawlenty. The state is notably what Sarah Palin would call 'maverick' - it's likely this time around to go for a more niche candidates, particularly one who supports the libertarian, small government views which are much more popular in New Hampshire than amongst the rest of the nation. If you are a betting person, put money on Ron Paul winning the New Hampshire primary. (But don't put money on him winning the nomination, and certainly don't put money on him winning the overall election.)

Pawlenty, as Toby Harden points out in the Telegraph, appeared to be on the offensive during this debate right from the start. It began with humorous but pointed jibes at opponent Mitt Romney, who said he would be happy to mow his lawn provided he limited himself to only one acre, a less-than-subtle way of highlighting Romney's wealth and privileged background. This was likely intended to subtly remind viewers of his own humble and difficult beginnings, with his father being a milk-man and his mother dying whilst he was a child. This blue-collar background sets him in contrast to some of his opponents, especially the notoriously wealthy Romney. It's a difficult line to toe as a Republican, though; whilst it serves the purpose of making him more appealing to average Americans, pointing to Romney's wealth potentially reinforces the stereotype Republicans supporting the rich and perhaps risks losing support for the policies on tax cuts which they all share, which would generally benefit the most wealthy the most. Taking pot-shots at wealth is also a risky game to play as a Republican because a good deal of the party don't see it as an issue. Whilst Democrat candidates could use it to suggest an opponent is out-of-touch and doesn't understand the issues common people face (the contrast between Obama and Hillary Clinton springs to mind), much of the Republican base and their wealthy donors may see it as demonising success.

Whilst I like Fox News (and hopefully by saying so make myself an enemy of lefties for the rest of my life), I can't help but question whether the moderator was deliberately seeking to stir up conflict between the two, perhaps hoping for the result being ultra-conservative Bachmann to come out on top and get one-over on Pawlenty, which sadly she did. Pawlenty was left on the defensive after a series of criticisms from Bachmann, who accused him of being similar to Obama during his time as governor of Minnesota in terms of things like healthcare, the size of government, and taxation. Pawlenty did not do a good job of defending himself against this onslaught - probably because there was some truth in what she accused him of. Instead of properly defending his record as governor, he attacked Bachmann for not having worked miracles in Congress, criticising her for not succeeding in everything she did. It didn't really work; people are bright enough to know that even if you fight tooth and nail for causes, you can't always win in politics, especially if odds and numbers are stacked against you. Unintentionally, Pawlenty, actually highlighted that his opponent fights for causes that most Republicans support and isn't afraid of taking on difficult battles.

Worse still, he committed that cardinal sin of politics - accusing her of lying. If you make such a claim in our Parliament, the Speaker (probably at the request of his awful wife) will ask you to retract your statement or bugger off. He said Bachman has a "record of false statements". I don't know whether it's some latent gender stereotypes in me, but I was moderately uncomfortable with him accusing a woman of lying. Not a logical reaction, but a slight feeling of a man being rude and domineering to a woman. I ponder whether others would have shared the gut feeling, even if it made no logical sense because she was being a cow towards him. The problem for Tim was that he just wasn't very good at countering Bachman's claims. This was most notable when the topic of her vote in the Minnesota state senate on raising tobacco fees came up. She accused Pawlenty of being in the pocket of anti-tobacco special interests, therefore tacking on a tax rise into legislation which protected unborn children. He didn't counter this claim at all, and just said that that's not the reason Bachmann voted for the legislation. He was utterly unconvincing, and time and time again Bachmann came out on top in their verbal scuffles, especially as she was able to get in some good and memorable one-liners which played exceptionally well with the audience. "You can get money wrong, but you can't get life wrong." Even though I disagree with some important chunks of her politics, Bachmann came across as likeable and intelligent.

A commenter on the Telegraph suggested that Pawlenty might pop up as the running mate of a the eventual Republican nomination - and therefore the would-be Vice President. I don't find this likely; someone who drops out so early in the race - before official primaries have even begun - stands little chance of then being dragged back out into the limelight. I will, however, be interesting to see if Pawlenty endorses another candidate and if he pops up again on the campaign trail in support of them. I suspect he might remain quiet for a while, then endorse Romney if he's still in the race at is late stages. It certainly doesn't look like he's going to be endorsing Bachmann, anyway.

Something I thought was interesting was how poorly Mitt Romney seems to be doing. Despite having experience, national prominence, and a hell of a lot of money, he placed 7th in the straw poll, gaining only 3.5% of the vote. He reminds me of Hillary Clinton; feels entitled to the job, tapped as the favourite, but just isn't doing very well. Previously tapped as a favourite to win, including by me, he seems to have fallen far behind. (Precisely the reason you should ignore my earlier advice to place a bet on Ron Paul winning in New Hampshire). It was also notable that he gained very lukewarm reception from the audience, even at times when he spoke very well, eloquently, and said things which should be popular amongst the majority of Republicans and the public as a whole. However, he particularly failed on defending his record as Governor in implementing similar healthcare laws as Obama did at a national level, leaving the door wide open for Bachmann to point out the similarities again and suggest that it was unconstitutional for a state government to force its citizens to purchase health insurance.

There was also a moment that really illustrated the importance of the Tea Party and the shift the Republican party has undergone recently. Candidates were asked whether, if presented with a deal which would cut spending in a ratio of 10 to 1 in tax rises against spending cuts, they would accept the deal or walk away from it. Asked to raise their hand if they would refuse the deal, every single candidate did. Not one of them would agree to the compromise despite the hypothetical package consisting overwhelmingly of spending cuts. This went down well with most of the audience, but I suspect that a public looking for compromise in Washington may not appreciate such partisanship, especially if those hypothetical tax rises would only impact upon the most wealthy in terms of reducing the G.W. Bush tax cuts. If the eventual nominee takes such an ideological line in the election when the candidates are against Obama could give him tremendous scope to very easily portray his Republican opponent as out-of-touch, narrow-minded, and incredibly partisan. I suspect, however, that most of the candidates would be willing to accept such a deal. Unless they have a comfortable majority of Tea Party or at least very fiscally conservative Republicans in both the House and the Senate, then the chance of getting a better deal than that are incredibly slim. They cannot lambaste Obama for failing to get Republican support for healthcare reform if they go a similar route in ignoring Democrat demands on spending policies. A Republican President who vetoes a 10:1 deal would be a fool.

I am intrigued - though not entirely pleased by - the success that Ron Paul had in the poll. Whilst I've always admired and often agreed with this politician, his stance on foreign policy leaves much to be desired, and I expect that it will not be popular with much of the public. Paul's foreign policy essential consists of non-intervention and non-aggression. He seeks for America to return to its original isolationist foreign policy, abandoning the post-WWII trend towards intervention, most recently solidified by the Bush Doctrine, which led to the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq. Ron Paul wishes to bring home US troops, using them instead to secure national borders and as a defensive, deterrent force; not an aggressive one. He also seeks to change relations with other states, such as becoming less friendly with the USA's long-standing ally Israel. At times, he comes across as a nutty anti-American lefty, oftentimes blaming the US for Iran's aggression and stating that it is no wonder that Iran wants to gain nuclear weapons, as it would gain more respect internationally if it possessed them. (Apparently overlooking the fact that it's ruled by a dangerous dictatorial nutjob.) Whilst there exists amongst the public strong opposition to America's involvement in the Middle East, with its latest development being in Libya, I do not believe the majority of the US public want to support a total paradigm shift in foreign policy. A move to weak diplomacy and navel-gazing is not good for the country; it benefits strongly from its superpower status. Likewise, an isolationist USA would be a terrible thing for the world - if there is to be a global superpower, it is far more beneficial that it is democratic, freedom-loving, trustworthy America, and not China, Russia, or the European Union. I strongly value there being an America which is willing to involve itself in international affairs, both by the power of diplomacy and direct action. Ron Paul's America would be one which gives up both of these weapons, in favour of ideological pursuit of non-intervention, and this is not in the slightest appealing. Regarding how it may play with Republicans, whilst it might sound popular in the short-term to save a lot of money by shifting foreign policies, I can't see the majority being willing to rally behind Ron Paul's policies. It would be easy for Obama and Democrats to portray him as wanting to weaken America and put patriotic, committed troops out of work.

Notable by his absence from the Ames, Iowa debate and straw poll was Rick Perry, former Governor of Texas who has just recently dived into the contest. Perry comes to the contest with a strong record, particularly on the important aspect of jobs and economic recovery. Texas has managed to recover jobs quickly after the recession, putting it in contrast to other states. It's interesting that he placed 6th in the Ames, Iowa straw poll, despite not officially being part of it. Meaning that 4.3% of people wrote him in as their favourite candidate, despite him not being officially part of the poll. Embarrassingly for former favourite Romney, this means he was beaten by someone who wasn't even part of the poll.

It's important to bear in mind that it's easy to over-state the result of debates and polls. Bearing in mind that the Iowa caucus won't take place until January 2012, there's still time for other candidates to come forwards and completely change the landscape. Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani may be considering diving in, and there are other candidates such as Gary Johnson who have not yet got much publicity, but may yet enjoy some success. The importance of the media has also been shown in this process; by failing to give coverage to such candidates as Gary Johnson and Fred Karger, they've effectively been written off and are considered to be out of the race. The latter of which is an interesting Republican, who is the first openly gay candidate for President. My sources (that's actually a friend who just got back from holiday in the USA - I just wanted to sound sophisticated by claiming to have sources) tell me that the support for Bachmann is being over-stated, and that Romney is likely to continue to be the front-runner.

(PS. I didn't proof-read any of this. It's over 2,500 words long, and it's suddenly half past late.)

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