Newt Wins South Carolina, but at What Cost?

Gingrich walks away from South Carolina as the surprise winner, embarrassing Romney and having said a lot of things he may come to regret.

It was beginning to look as though Mitt Romney was distancing himself from the rest of his Republican competitors. Just a week ago, he had “won” both Iowa and New Hampshire and was heading into South Carolina in the hopes of becoming the first candidate to win all three of the first Republican primaries. Instead, something more historic has happened – a different candidate has won all three. Romney’s distant second place finish came one day after the Iowa Republican Party announced that after counting all the votes, Rick Santorum was the official winner of the caucus.

Key to Gingrich’s victory was appealing to the more conservative elements of South Carolina’s electorate. Let’s keep in mind that Iowa was one of the first states to recognize same-sex marriages and that New Hampshire is a quasi-blue state. South Carolina’s Republican voters are easily the most conservative we have seen in this primary season and Gingrich was keen to exploit that by playing the race/hate/liberal-bashing card. This is the same Gingrich that earlier in January said he would go to the NAACP and urge blacks to demand paychecks, not food stamps. The same Gingrich who referred to Obama as the “best food stamp President in American history“. The same Gingrich who proposed that we hire children as janitors in inner-city (code word for non-white) schools.

This tactic may have worked in South Carolina, but it will not resonate as strongly in Florida, Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Arizona and Michigan, which are all scheduled to have their respective primaries/caucuses over the next month.

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Free Speech for Everyone and Everything

Newt gets an easy $5 million and the First Amendment cringes 

In early May 2011, Stephen Colbert established a political action committee called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, better known as Colbert Super PAC, which allows the comedian to raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, institutions and individuals. Colbert has stated that the money would be raised not just for political ads, but also “administrative expenses, including but not limited to, luxury hotel stays, private jet travel, and PAC mementos from Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.”

Colbert’s most recent political project (he attempted to get his name on the ballot in the 2008 South Carolina Democratic primary) is, more than anything, a playful yet charged response to the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which in common parlance, declared corporations to be people. More specifically, it stated that the government may not prohibit unions and corporations from making independent expenditures about politics based on the First Amendment right to free speech.

The type of speech in question here is referred to as independent expenditure, meaning that a candidate is not permitted to coordinate in any way with those doing the speaking. Candidates can, however, increasingly rely on wealthy donors, who have been emboldened by the new precedent. Late last week, Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino owner, made a $5 million contribution to Winning Our Future, a Super PAC that supports Republican candidate Newt Gingrich for president. Adelson’s contribution is 1,000 times the legal limit of what he would have been able to contribute to Mr. Gingrich’s official campaign.

Proponents of transparency would argue that at least we know about the contribution and its source. Not quite, and once again, it was comedian Stephen Colbert that captured, and exploited, the ridiculousness of the law’s current interpretation. In September 2011, Colbert and his lawyer, who happens to be the former Commissioner and Chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, set up a 501(c)(4) – a civic organization with the same right to speak (spend money) as a person, but do so anonymously – or as Colbert prefers to call it, a “campaign finance glory hole”.

We now know of one rich man’s $5 million contribution to help his long-time friend become President. Imagine how much money is being thrown at the elections that we do not, and will not, know about.

Exhausting All Options

Mitt Romney and the anticlimactic inevitability of the Republican nominee

Like a homecoming queen desperately trying to find a suitable date to the prom, the Republican Party continues to stumble from one candidate to another, in the hopes of finding an alternative to the seemingly preordained choice of Mitt Romney. The success of Rick Santorum in the Iowa Caucus is merely the latest attempt to avoid the GOP’s current golden boy; with the exception of Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, the possibilities have been more or less exhausted.

Before the campaigning got serious, many conservatives seriously considered Sarah Palin as a viable candidate – a line of thinking that was summarily squashed by the Republican establishment and (i.e.) Fox News. Rick Perry launched his candidacy following a stadium prayer rally for a “nation in crisis” and presented himself as the Christian cowboy American wishes it had with George W. Bush. Almost immediately, Michele Bachmann, the then Tea Party favorite, attacked Governor Perry for having signed legislation mandating that children in Texas be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV). Bachmann went on to suggest that the vaccine leads to mental retardation and effectively ended her campaign in mainstream America. Within weeks, the party began to feel uncomfortable with Perry’s compassion for the children of undocumented immigrants, and his inability to remember more than two things at a time.

Herman Cain was the next to storm the polls and vanished almost just as quickly, surrounded by several allegations of sexual misconduct, depriving the country of its most prominent token black presidential candidate to date (and more of the funniest/creepiest campaign ads in a long time). Not long afterwards, Newt Gingrich, no stranger to sexual misconduct himself, was elevated to front-runner status as the self-proclaimed intellectual of the Republican Party. In spite of doing all the right things – complaining about black people on welfare and shedding a few tears on the trail – Gingrich’s star began to fade. Perhaps voters knew deep down that they were merely flirting with Newt in the same way they were with Palin, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain before.

Most recently, Rick Santorum, of Santorum fame, walked away as the surprise winner of the Iowa Caucus, even though he came in second. By nearly tying Mitt Romney, voters are stating clearly that they are willing to consider all options in premature unrepresentative non-binding antiquated electoral events.

With a string of high profile endorsements, including those of Senator John McCain, former president George H. W. Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Mitt Romney is increasingly looking like the establishment’s choice. Santorum offers a last gasp for those values voters concerned about abortion and the lifestyles of homosexuals – something the establishment fears because they know they are on the wrong side of history. Although Romney claims to be a true conservative, his track record as Governor of Massachusetts indicates that he is certainly capable of successfully serving a traditionally liberal constituency – something that virtually every other Republican candidate views as treason.

If and when Romney secures the nomination, expect to see a shift towards the political center as he attempts to soften much of the conservative credibility he has so fervently worked to build up during the primaries. The most common complaint from voters and his opponents, that Romney is an opportunistic flip-flopper, will be put to the test in the general election when confronted with an increasingly assertive incumbent President.

With each successive primary, Republican voters will be forced to choose. After exhausting nearly every alternative (barring Paul and Huntsman), it looks as though the Party is beginning to admit that it must settle. Deep down, we all knew the homecoming queen would feel obliged to pick the rich, handsome quarterback.