Tuesday night, minutes after he was declared the winner of the New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney took the stage to wild chants of “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” and promptly covered himself in shit. Romney took only a minute to praise his attractive, wealthy followers for blessing him with what would become a massive, 16.4-percent lead over his closest opponent. “Tonight, we made history,” he announced, and that was technically true, because no other non-incumbent Republican has won both Iowa and New Hampshire since Iowa took its place at the front of the line in 1976. But it was the smallest kind of history that Romney supporters made, a technical win in one of those unloved categories in Guinness World Records, like being acknowledged as the man with the widest mouth in the world.* The real numbers told a different story: While Romney bested John McCain’s New Hampshire win back in 2008, actual Republican attendance at the polls, when you subtract independents, was 16 percent lower than during the last New Hampshire primary. That’s a problem we’ll get back to in a minute.
But first, the shit. I don’t think the anonymous Republican meant his seemingly spontaneous shout of “Mitt happens!” in the middle of Romney’s speech to be an insult. But it hung in the air for a fraction of a second, putting off cartoon smell lines in every direction—a joyous celebrant who blurted out a vivid reminder that his preferred candidate’s name can be used as a handy substitute for shit, making Romney the second Republican candidate this year to become synonymous with poo. (We’ll get to Old Frothy Mix of Lube and Fecal Matter in a minute, too.)
On Tuesday, Romney earned the rhymes-with-shit comparison for sure. His speech was a smear on the consciousness of the electorate, beginning with his claim that Barack Obama’s is a “failed presidency.” In his strange, stilted delivery, he announced that the president is happy to wake up in the morning, “look out across America,” and say, “it could be worse.” That’s not American, Mitt tut-tutted. Romney mentioned “hope” several times, along with the obligatory mention of Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.” But he harped on “the worst recovery since the Great Depression”—an awkward charge, but probably one that’s fitting, since the economic collapse of 2008 was the worst since the Great Depression—and he played with the giddy crowd’s expectations: “The president has run out of ideas. Now he’s running out of excuses.” The crowd capered for their punch line and Romney gave it to them: “Let’s make 2012 the year he runs out of time.”
The worst was yet to come: Romney accused Obama of wanting to turn the United States into a “European-style welfare state,” saying the president looks to the “capitals of Europe” for inspiration. Romney batted Europe about, saying Obama wants us to be “the worst of what Europe has become.” It’s probably no mistake that he segued from talk about Europe into a hawkish tirade, announcing that he will make our military so strong that “nobody will question us.”
There’s risk for Romney in this Republicans-versus-Europe game: During the Vietnam War draft, Romney fulfilled his Mormon mission while living in a French castle. And as Andrew Sullivan pointed out minutes after Romney’s attacks, Germany enjoys a 5.5 percent unemployment rate. And anyone who has spent time in Europe, as Romney has, can refute his depiction of the continent as a hellish nightmare realm. It’s easy to name European qualities that America should want to emulate: lower infant mortality rates, lower crime rates, better elder care, and—ahem—the universal health care that many European countries have decided should be a right for all citizens.
But whatever. You can spend days arguing with the contents of a Republican speech. Let’s talk form. Anyone who’s ever heard a political speech would have recognized that Romney was setting up the part where he would launch into soaring rhetoric, explaining to his followers and the nation why he is the candidate they should choose. In this final third of the speech, Romney would lay out his plans, explain his policies in broad terms, and define what Mitt Romney’s America would look like. His followers would leave floating on a cloud of excitement, and people who had never seen Romney speak before would find themselves intrigued by what he has to offer.
Except he didn’t do that. There was no final third of the speech. Mitt Romney spewed rage and disgust against Obama and Europe over hundreds of thousands of people, painting our nation as a doomed enterprise, teetering on the brink of a socialist cesspool, and then he failed to offer that most American of concepts, a happy ending. What happens next?
And then? That’s it. That’s the end. Go home. See you in November, suckers.
Romney only once deigned to mention the existence of other Republican candidates, when he defended his career as a layoff baron at Bain Capital. He accused Obama “and a few desperate Republicans” of “putting the free market on trial.” That’s just more bullshit, of course. You can’t run as Romney has for the last five years—as a Businessman, in that same weird, adoring Republican language that thrust George W. Bush (“our first CEO president,” remember?) into the White House—without having your Business wind up in the spotlight, and Romney’s Business (Bain) was ripping companies to shreds and laying people off for the sake of hilariously outsize profits.
But the “few desperate Republicans” bit is absolutely true. Tying Bain Capital to the engine of capitalism that powers America is a weak defense for what Romney knows he’s got coming. South Carolina, traditionally the meanest state in Republican politics, is going to be the last stand for a whole lot of candidates who have nothing to lose. In their speeches, neither Rick Santorum—his pinched face paler than usual from the bloody collision that killed his Iowa momentum—nor Newt Gingrich could muster any of the emotional heft or pissy outrage, respectively, of their speeches from a week ago.
Gingrich still referred to himself incessantly, but he couldn’t whine about Romney’s dirty tricks this time; Romney had ignored Gingrich in New Hampshire. Without the indignant puffiness of a diner who was wronged in some small way by his uppity waiter, Gingrich was strangely deflated, cheering only momentarily when he mentioned his own greatness before slinking back behind the podium.
And Santorum—the original shit in this shitty, shitty shit sandwich, before Romney supporters tried to take even that, his own family name, from him earlier in the evening—looked again like the tiny, bigoted goon everyone but Iowans know him to be. The difference a week can make in American politics was something ghastly to behold during his speech; once an equal, Santorum was again reduced to a simpering toady, fearful to anger the once and future frontrunner lest he be denied access to favors in the future.
That’s not going to stop Santorum and Gingrich and the absent Rick Perry from taking their swings at Romney in South Carolina, of course. They’ve got their pride to consider, and pride, in a presidential candidate, is an endlessly renewable resource. But it’s doubtful that any of those swings will connect. In their efforts to win the longest of long shots at the Republican candidacy, they’ll wind up doing some of Barack Obama’s dirty work for him, and horrified mainstream Republicans are starting to realize that this is a bad thing.
Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have already chastised Gingrich and Perry for being no better than a pack of craven liberals with their assaults on Romney’s Bain Capital. (A pro-Gingrich superPAC, on the delightfully named www.kingofbain.com, has just released what Gingrich identifies as a “twenty-seven-and-a-half-minute” documentary about the lives Romney has destroyed, titled When Mitt Romney Came to Town. Perry accused Romney of committing “vulture capitalism,” and one can imagine the Perry staffer in the back room sighing with relief when Perry got that bon mot out of his mouth without gaffe-ing it.) The party is falling in line, and soon Fox News, Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, and all the other hypocrites who maligned Mitt for being too moderate will begin the difficult, distasteful work of pretending they have always been proud citizens of Romney country. There are just a few loose ends to tie up first.
Will anyone ever be able to figure out what the fuck Jon Huntsman was thinking, for instance? Challenging Romney in what has become Romney’s home state—in a disingenuous (but successful!) bit of real estate sleight of hand—was a fool’s errand from the very start. Was Huntsman hoping against hope that someone would be able to slaughter Romney before the race began? Even so, that plan would require the teabag-happy Republican base to suddenly go moderate in order to embrace Huntsman. Is Huntsman gambling that President Obama will win the 2012 election, allowing Huntsman to sweep in as a frontrunner in the wide-open and ideologically aimless 2016 Republican field? Will we ever know? Huntsman claims to be continuing on after his disappointing third-place result in New Hampshire, but it’s got to come down to ego, a refusal to admit that he was ultimately just a one-state candidate who couldn’t even place second after giving it his all.
No, the dubious honor of coming in second came to Ron Paul, who, with his uncontrollable giggling and bizarre, rambling election-night monologues, is starting to resemble a Batman villain. He proudly proclaimed that he and his followers are “dangerous”; he pities the poor, dumb “bleeding hearts” for not knowing any better, he warns of his campaign “nibbling at [Romney’s] heels.” (He did offer a few words of praise to Romney, in what must be a Ron Paul first; is it possible that even the Great White-Supremacist Hope is kissing ass in the hopes of a favor or two from a Romney administration? What a maverick he is! What an outsider!)
The most interesting thing about Paul’s off-the-cuff remarks is that he appeared to reveal the motivation behind one of his most popular policies. It was almost lost in the chants of “Bring! Them! Home!” but Paul assured the audience that he will draw the American military down in Afghanistan and around the world without causing an “economic crisis.” He referred, several times, to the economic value of the military to the United States, and couched the terms of his militaristic drawdown the same way he discusses weaning old and unemployed people off the government teat. Paul thinks the military is an economic issue, not a human issue, though he does a fairly good job of framing his goals as a human concern in order to rope in the pacifist kids.
But think about it: When, in all 15 debates and countless campaign appearances, has Paul ever expressed concern for another human life? He gruffly admitted a few months back that hospitals in Ron Paul’s America might not save an uninsured man’s life, and he’s always quick to turn personal stories of human beings who need help from other human beings into broad lectures about how the Austrian school of economics will save America, as the founding fathers somehow intended. To edit Kanye West: Ron Paul doesn’t care about people.
But then, neither does the Republican Party, unless those people are ridiculously wealthy, or not born yet. Romney won New Hampshire because wealthy white people were the only ones who cared enough to vote. They were the only ones who cared enough to vote because they want to protect their interests, and Romney, the preferred candidate of Goldman Sachs, is their only hope. Their vote for Romney is not a decision born of zealotry. This is pragmatism at the voting booth, and it’s difficult to win an election with a pragmatic candidate; just ask John Kerry.
What we’re facing as spectators is a few more weeks of turbulence before the Coronation of Willard Romney begins. Paul will continue to manipulate the youth vote into relatively strong showings, but his meandering speeches lack the fire of 2008 Ron Paul; it feels as though mainstream Republican fears that Paul will run as a third-party candidate are probably unfounded. Gingrich can only commit so much violence before Karl Rove’s thugs start to impugn the man’s reputation and his place in conservative history. Santorum is already starting to fade back to the Fox News punditry that birthed his campaign.
And then, from February on, we’re facing months of Romney sniping at President Obama’s policies and talking shit about America before the race really kicks off next summer. The fact is, when fewer people turn out at elections, Republicans win. And the best way to turn people off is to make the race as dirty as possible, throwing shit until the only rational response is to shut down your attentions and stop bothering with the whole ugly affair. Democratic hopes that the shit-slinging will remain inside the Republican Party through June are pretty much unfounded. Hold on tight: Things are about to get really ugly.
* The widest human mouth in the known world right this moment is “17 cm (6.69 in) and belongs to Francisco Domingo Joaquim ‘Chiquinho’” of Angola. The widest human mouth in the Republican race belongs to Newt Gingrich.